Movie industry gets lost in translation

Updated: 2012-11-29 10:11

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily)

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Death knell

As China opened up to the outside world, the pace of change accelerated. From the mid-1990s, 10 foreign blockbusters were allowed into the Chinese market every year, with revenues split evenly between the moviemakers and local distributors. From that point, Chinese audiences were given unprecedented access to a wider range of cultural products from the West. "The market became more diverse and people stopped focusing exclusively on the arts," said Yang.

However, this easier access sounded the death knell for many of the old-school Chinese voice actors, whose rigidly stylised performances proved unattractive to younger audiences.

"The old voice-over methods showcased certain fixed values among voice-performance artists who had strong, individual styles and ways of illustrating characters in the story," said Shi. "Today, audiences are rarely able to identify a single voice among the various roles played by the same actor. Voice-overs have been transformed from a sort of performance art into a bridge that crosses the language barrier," he said.

China's cultural authorities still assign all foreign movies to just four dubbing companies, located in Beijing, Shanghai and Changchun, the capital of Jilin province.

Budgets are restricted, with the crews receiving a mere 50,000 yuan ($8,000) for each production. The limited budget means there is precious cash little left over once post-production costs - including script translation and adaptation, voice casting and synchronization - have been covered.

Even in the days when the budget per feature was twice as high, studios could only just scrape by. "In the past, we had a few months to finish each entire job," said Liao Lin, a dubbing producer in Beijing. "Now we have about one week before the movie hits the screen. In tight circumstances like these, we feel it's unfair if we receive complaints about the lower quality of the output."

At one time, an dubbing producer was able to summon an experienced crew, but nowadays few of the staff work in the dubbing industry full time.

Sporadic employment

While the situation in China is parlous, even less attention is paid to dubbing Chinese movies into English or other languages. At present, China has no program to oversee translations for subtitles, let alone dubbing.

"Given the difficulties understanding the cultural references embedded in Chinese characters, it is crucial that we establish a program to specifically target overseas markets," said Liao.

Roger Savage has 40 years experience in the Australian movie industry and is a leading light at the post-production sound outfit Soundfilm. Having worked on the Chinese production Let the Bullets Fly, Savage said post-production crews often discover errors in completed subtitles.

Savage said dubbing a movie from Chinese to English can cost from $5,000 to $25,000, but the exact cost depends on the ratio of dialogue to action sequences.

On one of China's most successful movies overseas Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the dubbing into English cost $80,000, according to Savage. "But Chinese producers and film companies obviously have yet to realize that their films can reach a wider audience in the Western market," he said.

Yang Heping, director of the dubbing center of China Film Group, said it is unrealistic to lay the burden of dubbing on movie film companies alone. "The government needs to offer strategic and financial support for the Chinese dubbing industry," he said.

In addition, with a huge number of foreign TV dramas, online games and cartoons in need of dubbing, movie and amateur voice actors are now playing a much more active role in the business because of technological developments in online dubbing services. Those developments, however, are helping to reduce the overall quality.

China's only State-owned dubbing company, Shanghai Dubbing Studio, has yet to discover a way out of the dilemma that sees professionals working only sporadically, especially as the companies only receive a set fee for their work and are never entitled to a cut of the profits at the boxoffice.

"We have to provide dubbing-related services for animations or other projects just to keep busy," said Jiang Jing, marketing manager at Shanghai Dubbing Studio. She added that the most effective way of protecting and expanding a healthy dubbing industry would be to establish a series of regulations and standards for the industry.

"That would make the average good, and the good brilliant," she said

Contact the reporter at zhangyuchen@chinadaily.com.cn

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