Every week, thousands of young Chinese gather online to translate popular American movies and TV shows into Mandarin. Some do it for fun and to help people learn English, while others see it as a subtle way to introduce new ideas into Chinese society.
Among the more popular American TV shows on China’s Internet these days is HBO’s The Newsroom. One reason is an exchange between a college student and a news anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The young woman asks the aging newsman why the United States is the greatest country in the world.
The anchor explodes.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we are the greatest country in the world,” he barks. “We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science.”
The first episode caught the eye of Zeo, a college junior and a member of a so-called fan subtitle group that translated the show’s first season.
The group — about 20 people spread around China — divvies up scenes and translates them with the help of dictionaries. Zeo says she loved that exchange, because it was so refreshing to hear someone challenge a national myth.
“Not, you know, being fooled by the whole propaganda,” she says.
Like the United States, China has its own sense of exceptionalism. Zeo hopes more Chinese question that.
Growing up, Zeo says all she heard was the government praising China’s development and benefits of socialism.
“But the reality I see is different,” she says. “If you want tell me our way is the right way, show me the evidence.”
Chinese viewers have downloaded The Newsroom more than half a million times and posted more than 10,000 comments, including criticism of the acting.
But one fan using the name Tarrance had this observation: “Maybe it’s hard to summarize why America is the greatest nation in the world, but having a remarkable Fourth Estate is definitely one of the reasons why this country is so great.”
This is the sort of stuff Zeo is hoping to generate. She says she’s not trying to change minds or get people to views things in a certain way. Instead, she says, “You should think. That is our goal.”
A History Lesson
Chinese translation groups scour the Internet for any show that might resonate, even obscure ones like Assume the Position. It’s a stand-up routine/history class by comedian Robert Wuhl that makes fun of history’s selective eye.
“It’s the stories that made up America and the stories America made up,” says Wuhl, introducing the show, which aired on HBO in 2006. To illustrate his point, Wuhl cites Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s choice of Paul Revere for his famous, patriotic poem, instead of another man, who rode much farther to warn the colonists, but has a less poetic name.
“‘Listen my children and you shall hear of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ sounds a whole hell of a lot better than, ‘Come along kiddies, Daddy’s going to whistle while he tells you the story of Israel Bissell,’” Wuhl said.
Jeremy King, an English teacher in Central China’s Jiangsu province, translated the show in December.
“I had my hesitations, because this one is about history,” says King. “But when I released the first episode it was very popular.”
King thinks the video, which has been downloaded more than 10,000 times in China, is interesting to Chinese because it explores how people perceive history. In addition, the engaging, comedic style of teaching is completely different than China’s tradition of rote learning.
“Most of the replies were: ‘This is the best class I’ve ever seen. I wish I could have a teacher like him,’” King says.
Of course, not everyone is translating TV shows in hopes of changing society.
At least three groups focus on British period drama Downton Abbey. Alice Wu, a student at Shanghai International Studies University, works with six to seven people to complete a single episode in a day. Wu likes Downton because it provides entree to a foreign world of privilege and class dynamics.
“It’s quite fun,” she says. “They’ve also got romantic things, also something to do with money, how the British keep their estates, so it’s a lot of knowledge to absorb.”
Like others, Wu’s subtitle group works off pirated versions of TV programs, which she knows is illegal.
But Wu says her group makes no money from the videos and just translates them because they love the show.