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Under-appreciated Fansubs Online And Their “Forgotten Pulps”

低俗小说|The official Chinese title of Pulp Fiction, which literally means “vulgar fiction”

I never understood this title, Pulp Fiction The description of something being “pulp” is not something you hear on a daily basis. And I clearly remembered there was zero reference made about “pulp” in the actual movie. Until a few days ago when we rewatched this 1994 cult-favorite during one of our quarantine binge session, and I saw the flashcard-like insert of what “pulp” it, 0.01s into the film.

10 years ago, the Chinese fansubs then did not have any translation of the texts above.

I knew what “pulp” meant before the explanation from Tarantino. But seeing it as a visual reminder at the beginning film finally gave me that “ah-ha” moment. Pulp Fiction’s screenplay is a ground-breaking experiment against the traditional three-act-paradigm, and it adopts a “anti-plot” structure. There is no main hero, no clear storyline, and all events seem to be loosely linked coincidences that echoes Tarantino’s take on nihilism prevailing in 1990s’ USA: Life is made of meaningless pulps that do not make sense and we don’t even how ridiculous this essence of life is as we simply have a good time.

This would have made sense to a younger me who didn’t speak English and was watching Pulp Fiction for the first time where the flashcard scene was not subtitled. I assume because there was no dialogue.

20 years ago in China, it was not uncommon for non-verbal information to be ignored and become the “forgotten pulp”. It sounds highly unprofessional of the subtitlers to do this, because it is.

Back then, foreign films available online in China are fan-subs and they are unauthorized copies digitalized and subtitled by fans. Some are initially downloaded via BT(BitTorrent), a peer-to-peer protocol that allows file sharing globally, some looked like they were recorded in an actual cinema with a camera.

Fansubbing distribution began with Anime and occurred
by copying episodes on videotapes in low-quality formats.

quality was poor, expensive and difficult to reproduce.

LaToya D. Rembert-Lang, “Reinforcing the Tower of Babel: The Impact of Copyright Law on Fansubbing”

Foreign films in China have been somewhat a gray area after China announced its reformation and opening plan. Technically only 10 foreign films are allowed to make their way into the Chinese film market according to the ruling for imported films set in the 1990s’.

Under China’s Ministry of Radio, Film & Television(RFT) regulation, “China would just let 10 foreign high-quality films enter the market each year between 1996 and 2000.”

Ainhoa Marzol Aranburu, “The Film Industry in China: Past and Present”

Nonetheless, news about the buzz-generating new releases still made their way to the fan community in China thanks to globalization and digital media. Fan groups create communities on social networking services such as Baidu Tieba, or Douban. Eventually, fan-based subtitling became an activity generating links “at the disjuncture of the worldwide mediascape, which strengthens with the public access to duplicates”.

Take Douban for example, fans create “doulist” where users post their finished fansubs. Users can subscribe to others’ doulists and be notified of newly posted fansubs. Users outside a certain doulist can still access the posts through a direct search on Douban. However, Douban does not allow re-uploading of existing films because of obvious copyright reasons. Fan’s approach to sharing their fansubs is to post BT links that enable immediate downloading.

Essentially Douban works as an information desk where fans are able to navigate their way to officially “off-limits” foreign films.

After the 2009 major shutdown of P2P sharing sites by China’s Ministry of RFT, torrenting fansubs become largely banned. Yet fans still found their way around this obstacle. Another type of links to a Cloud service called Baidu Cloud started to circling around and created another feasible way for fansubs-sharing.

Baidu Cloud is a market-leading could service in China that offers encrypted file sharing which masquerade unauthorized fansubs as private files shared among close friends. Baidu Cloud also enables mutiple social functions such as chatting, editing files and remote uploading.

Usually, posts on Douban also include links to other social media platforms such as Weibo(sort of a Chinese version of Twitter) where on-time updates on new fansubs are posted. There are also high-volumes of fansubs posts archived as one of Weibo’s “super topics”.

Read more about Weibo’s super “topics”.

Initially, these subtitlers in fan groups are regarded as the “underground heroes”. I remember seeing fansubs groups like RenRen and Ragbear as a supreme circle of the film bugs and being able to get in was like being entitled to a prime VIP membership. Not only do you have the privilege to “raw meat”, which is jargon for unsubtitled original films,

there are many people who are able to, as the fansubbers would call it, ‘eat the raw meat’, meaning ‘watching shows without fansubs'”

Tian, “Fansub Cyber Culture in China”

you are also the one contributing to the final work shared among other people. It makes you feel you had a piece of yourself in the films.

From early 2000 to 2010, subtitling groups had an explosive booming phase that started with recruiting more language talents online. Posts about “subtitlers wanted” began to show up not only on the original networking birthplaces like Douban, fansubbed films are “tagged” by subtitlers with Weibo accounts or email addresses used for “subtitlers-hiring-only purposes”.

As more talents are amassed online, the job of fansubbing begin to go through what seemed like a “professionalization” period where people with technical skills to “spot”(which basically means transcribe) and incorporate the subtitles were wanted as well, as they have established a feasible method to share subtitled films that generated increasing popularity.

Professional subtitlingFan subbing

Then criticism began to emerge as the community got wider. In a nutshell, the complaint is about what was left out or not subtitled from the original film, the “forgotten pulps”.

There are types of these pulps:

  1. Non-dialogic verbal message

This category includes the unsubtitled flashcard in Pulp Fiction. Technically this is a mistranslation because the flashcard is a visual-verbal message significant for viewers to understand the main idea of the film. Other unsubtitled information includes: lyrics of background music, street names, etc.

  • Cultural information

This includes cultural-exclusive references(CER) that a mere linguistic translation just won’t make sense to the foreign audience. A simple example of CER would be to try and explain Easter Bunny to a Chinese-born kid and it would never make sense. Look at this segment from Woody Allen’s comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

“You must know, my son.”

“My father, poured hemlock in my ear.” …”Whenever he sees an ear, he likes to pour hemlock in it.”

How do you explain the Shakespeare reference to Hamlet to the Chinese audience, in 2 lines?

The unspoken thing here is the fact that this Shakespeare reference of Hamlet’s father getting poisoned by hemlock in his ear is a cultural knowledge exclusive to the West. Therefore the subtitles are usually condensed in order to not overflow the screen with subtitles, even if it means the humor might not make sense to the target audience.

Interestingly, the Chinese title for this comedy, 性爱宝典(back translation: The Treasured Book of Sex) is a highly condensed translation as well, but this title translation actually works pretty well. Because sex is something not openly talked about in both cultures and the sensation of cultural norm violation in dark comedy is carried through in both titles.

how dark comedy works: violation of norm + benign conditions + simultaneity = humor

subtitling for dark comedy can be particularly tricky because of the twists and turns happening in cultural norms that are most likely geographically exclusive.

  • Swearing

Swear words get dropped out constantly in Chinese fan-subs while studies suggest Chinese audience have a higher tolerance towards strong languages in English and prefer them to be translated into the Chinese subtitles.

“empirical findings have shown that young people, who form the majority of the audience of foreign audiovisual programs, are often accepting of strong language and expect it to be preserved in translation

wang, “Fansubbing in China – With Reference to the Fansubbing Group YYeTs

All in all, It bugs people who are not subtitlers but do speak English when they clearly heard something that just wasn’t translated and put side-by-side with the original English. Just like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation when the Japanese interpreter generalized what seemed to be 1000 words of the director into 2 words, and Murray replied with disbelief: “That’s all he said?”.

As underappreciated as they already are, fansubs groups are often bashed online for being “unprofessional or even lazy” because of these forgotten pulps. In fact, in most online discussions about the pros and cons of fan-subs and professional subtitles, free vs. expensive, low quality vs. good quality are things that are always on the list.

It is easy to assume that fans producing subtitles would slack around and produce crappy subtitles with bits and pieces untranslated because they don’t get paid.

The digital media that has sustained a space for fan communities is now bringing closer attention and assessment towards fan-subs in China, which does not justify the quick criticism towards these unsung heroes.

Truthfully, fansubs is very much unlikely to be inferior than pro-subs, largely due to the “mutual affinity” of online fansubbing, where talents are amassed and share their various intellectuals based on their common interest: films, whereas professional subtitlers work in a much more isolated environment restricted by copyright issues.

“The collective nature of fansubbing provides an excellent environment for the acquisition of new translator competence, including genre knowledge, technological expertise, immediate peer feedback and a healthy interactive translator community.”

Dwyer, “Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation”

Compared to translation, which was faced with outsiders’ doubts that it can be substitute by translation machines like Google translate, subtitling is more likely to win by a landslide if any “subtitling machine” comes along.

Bubbles about a perfect translation machine bursted when people began to realize that AI translates texts while translators translate meanings. Subtitlers, especially fansubbers working collectively are experts on extracting and then condensing meanings.

Here is an excellent article that offers an in-depth rationale behind condensation in subtitling.

Simply put, condensation is a common method of subtitlers is crucial because Chinese has a lower linguistic capacity in the sense that it can only convey so many meanings in one limited sentence. “Leaving things out” is necessary so that the audience have time to read and comprehend the subtitles in a limited time.

Netflix’s text format guide rules that there are 42 characters allowed for one line in English and 16 for Chinese, which sounds about right.

Naturally, this means human efforts are essential to produce quality subtitles. As mentioned, digital media has helped countless “fan-based subtitling groups” to form and communicate and share experience. This means more human efforts are able to put in for one single film.

Because of such collective efforts through digital media, individual fan-based subtitlers might not have the professional competence to identify what needs to be translated, leading to online criticism regarding these “forgotten pulps”. It is also true that fansubs are judged unfairly because subtitling companies have a much lower risk to be exposed to online-bashing since their subtitles usually are produced and shown offline to a limited number of audience.

Once the fansubs are live on social networks on Douban or Weibo, anyone with a computer can access them and give direct feedback through the comment section. English is no longer something spoken by only a few in China. It could be any bilingual who has no knowledge of how subtitling works to comment. Also, the Cloud service Baidu Wangpan also works as a social media where receivers of files can send messages back to the fansubs groups.

Just like using pictures or music created by others on Instagram, or producing videos on youtube based on other creator’s ideas, we live in a world where copying is justified as long as you give credits to the original creator. It’s ironic that film directors or produces do not seem to care much about what fansubs do to their works.

“Film directors and TV producers seldom show any interest in what happens to their works”

Ivarsson, “Subtitling for the Media: A Handbook of an Art

Also ironically, the ones who judge them the most are the original reason why fansubs came into being: the fans.

Read more about fansubs:


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