The Knowing Ducks of Spring: How to tell when China is Ready to Compete with Hollywood

琅琊榜 黄金分割

People associated with China’s film industry recently declaimed on the CBS program 60-Minutes that the Chinese are poised to give Hollywood a run for its money. Rob Cain of Bloomberg was quite emphatic as to why not. And I wholeheartedly agree with him.

In this I am taking my cue from China’s own tough-love critics, whose opinion I figure must be weighty on this subject. Ranging from Chen Danqing, an artist and arbiter of culture, to Ran Yunfei, a public intellectual harassed by authorities, they all agree that cultural China is but a shadow of its former self. They feel that the ravages of the country’s recent past, such as the Cultural Revolution, left China adrift, severed from much of its heritage and uncertain of its future. You can’t tell powerful stories when you don’t know who you are or where you might be.

China is, therefore, in a long cultural convalescence, and in such straits poses no threat to Hollywood’s global dominance. By the same token, however, healing may eventually usher in a renaissance.

The great Song-dynasty renaissance man, Su Dongpo (1037-1101), writes that “When warm once again the tides of spring grow/The ducks are always the first ones to know.” Here are two spheres of Chinese cultural life to watch, as Su’s proverbial ducks, for the arrival of that cultural renewal. Now, it is inevitable that observers will vehemently differ on whether backsliding or leapfrogging is gaining the upper hand. There will be inexhaustible opportunities to track eye-popping developments on the ground and to wrangle over what they mean. That will be part of the fun.

The Chinese Language. Chinese is slowly recovering from the Maoist style of writing and speaking. Li Tuo, a literary critic, pointed out in 1997 that the language of propaganda and revolution held back modern Chinese. The standardized Maospeak outlawed, and virtually wiped modern Chinese clean, of classical Chinese.

To understand what this means, imagine an English with the widest part of its Saxon and Latinate vocabulary surgically removed. Then ponder how you can grapple with that state of things, knowing only a few odds and ends from your entire literary past that political leaders, the government press and a couple of lionized writers happened to cite. That’s what the Chinese are up against.

Restoring and regrowing Chinese language and culture is an uphill climb. Still, Hollywood should not get too comfortable. For the last several years, a section of Chinese society has honored their past by waxing nostalgic for the culture of the Republican era that immediately preceded Communist rule. For example, Mu Xin, a recently discovered writer’s writer, is beloved of young hip readers as representative of “what Chinese literature would have looked like, had it not been devastated after 1949.” Readers and writers are slowly reforging the broken link to their rich birthright.

Chinese Dramas and Their Critics. While the majority of Chinese audience put up with what domestically produced movie and TV theatricals censors allow them to see, an irrepressible minority have made a wildly popular cottage industry out of ripping into government-approved content that offend them as insults to their IQ. Barrages of jokes and quips greet trite fare restricted to a few categories:

a. Imperial court intrigue emphasizing the sagacity of rulers and the grandeur of Chinese empires;

b. The 101th rehashing of myths on how underground tunnels and airplane-felling pistol shots from Communist guerrillas beat back the Japanese invasion in WWII;

c. Shoddy rom-coms slovenly modeled on Japanese and Korean originals, adapted to Chinese tastes with endless catfights between daughter- and mother-in-law.

Stuff that will not shake Hollywood to its foundations any time soon. Having said that, watch out for the gush of irreverent creativity from their critics: theirs is an outstanding testament to the Chinese imagination and its potential for storytelling. 

Given how formidable that creativity would be if harnessed the right way, just like the country did in the manufacture of more tangible things, China may yet catch up with light-year speed. Nirvana in Fire, a popular 55-episode drama that was seen a total of 3.5 billion times on Chinese streaming platforms as of October 2015, is one recent breakthrough that for once has the homegrown critics applauding. This historical fantasy differs in many regards from mainstream fare. A re-conceived Count of Monte Cristo, it sports a moral backbone, where other censor-sanctioned drama veer between saintly stereotypes (WWII) and nihilistic cynicism (court intrigue). It boasts strong female characters whose horizons extend beyond the love of men. Its treatment of historical details is precise and intimate, going beyond professional polish to that reforging of links to Chinese heritage so vital to China’s renaissance. All this result in a reticent aesthetics rooted in the high tradition of Chinese painting and poetry. The camerawork, costumes and set design are of an understated beauty in a quintessentially Chinese way that has won over viewers both old and young.

In a word, I think we would do well to look to Chinese civil society in order to figure out when their creative springtime is at hand. Until then, Hollywood can try to stay ahead of the game by learning from the worthiest Chinese endeavors. For Hollywood, like China, has to endlessly recreate itself to stay true to its dreams. In that there is no zero-sum game. 

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Why the Funniest Movie Titles in Translation Are even Funnier than You Think

 

 

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http://themetapicture.com/tattoo-lost-in-translation/

One perennial listicle favorite on the Internet is the errors that foreigners make in English. The secret hope there is if foreigners are confused enough with our language, they won’t ever find out how hard we are laughing at how confused they are. English, our mother tongue, rolls in our mouth lapping a teat of safety. Our instinctive mastery is at light years’ remove from the blunders of struggling foreigners. They’ll never catch up. But we are kind, and wish to spare them that fact.

In my case things get a tad more complicated. English isn’t my first language. I’m passing as a native speaker. Discriminating pureborn Americans have sometimes picked up on a couple of twangs and endings and caught me out. Occasionally I suspected that if I were Albino, they would not have noticed these giveaways, but I knew this to be wishful thinking. I try to overcome what I prefer to consider a mild handicap by entertaining thoughts of copying out whole books by Western writers. Mind you, not Proust, even if Moncrieff channels him better than nearly anyone has the right to hope. Only the concise ones would do. Not Conrad, for obvious reasons. Once I did type out five pages of Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse, but there weren’t enough pretty words in it, so I quit.

Talking about funny errors that foreigners make in English, I came across some listicles on the “Funniest Movie Titles in Translation.” I would really like to unpack what is funny and what goes beyond that in these reported gaffes. It always helps to go over to the other side and look back. In this trifling exercise, I’ll stick with the Chinese ones, my French being a pure distillate of American schooling, and my German an accidental liability acquired through liaisons with a man from the Westphalian hinterland. Here is a selection:

Boogie Nights > 一舉成名 > His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous
Fargo >
雪花膏離奇命案 > Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream
The English Patient >
別問我是誰 > Don’t Ask Me Who I Am
The Professional >
這個殺手不太冷 > This Hit Man is Not as Cold as He Thought
Good Will Hunting >
驕陽似我 > Bright Sun, Just Like Me
Dead Poets Society >
暴雨驕陽 > Bright Sun in Heavy Rain
As Good as It Gets >
貓屎先生 > Mr. Cat Poop

How much of this bunch of jokes do we owe to incompetence, cluelessness, and word-whoring? Which part is the honest mistake, the catch-22, the cost you eat for intercultural communication? Any of it?

All these translations came out of Hong Kong. Here’s what I think I know about the place. The viewers there like to have an inkling of what they are paying for. Fair enough, since they are less likely to have heard of the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient.”) The city being a boom town, you should also expect a lot of hawking and a minimum of hand-wringing over artistic compromises. At the same time, the British colonial past and a workforce educated in the West that comes with the territory means that amateur mistakes are less likely.

Most Chinese novels and movies have titles that are as obvious as a boombox. Only the best and the bestselling writers can afford to be coy. The great comic writer Lao She went out on a limb with “A Collection in Clams and Seaweed” for one of his short-story volumes. The Queen of Romance Qiong Yao churned out over two decades titles that leaned on the Chinese poetic canon, replete with the haze of dreamed rain, the changeless change of red sunsets, and a thousand knots of the heart. Nary a plot line in their distant mauve mist.

Western films cannot, except for a Spielberg here and there, lay claim to such privilege. They need some sort of handle coming East. Something that can coax the viewer closer to the idea of watching a bunch of foreigners do their thing on the screen.

This brings me to the dirty secret behind some of these seemingly outlandish translations. In a word, the English translation of the Chinese translations did not return the favor the movie originals owe their Chinese handlers. In addition to pandering to cheap laughs and puerile associations, the Chinese translators also found a way to help their audience relate. When turning these titles back into English, the Western translators didn’t bother to undertake the latter. This may be understandable, to the extent that the joke would go out of some of what they are having us look at.

The backstory is that, the better job a translator does, the harder it gets to translate her rendition back to the original. It’s a bit like this: if the sugar has become one with your ice tea, you would be hard pressed to produce it intact from the sweetened liquid. “Boogie Nights” is an apt example. Some viewers in Hong Kong may have the foggiest idea of the tawdry, soul-wrenching nothing that underpins the excesses of the seventies’ porn industry in America, but you sure as hell can’t count on it to sell a whole movie. A straight translation won’t cut it. Gotta start closer to home. Good thing the Chinese have got a lot of cultural clutter to choose from. The translator hit on a juicy pun with this stock phrase, “With one blow he rises to fame.” Erections are universal, whatever claims the government in Beijing may make about Chinese exceptionalism. 

Ditto with the sun beating down on two films about young people, “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” “The fierce sun” is a veteran formula that checks off several selling points in one go: A Chairman Mao quote comparing young people to the morning sun; pairing up to the classical metaphor of teachers as nourishing rain to grow their students; and a fawning pitch framing the young as beloved brilliant creatures of unchecked will. You got your bang for the buck there.

The snowy cream has an even simpler explanation. That’s just “Fargo” written out in Chinese by sound. The translator probably did it on purpose, since there are more proper-sounding, less culinary words he could have chosen. Or maybe he was just pressed for time, and grabbed the words out of a hat. The Cold Professional gag and the “Don’t Ask My Name” posturing both derived from songs popular in Hong Kong at the time, as hooks to hang the proverbial hat on.

Having come this far, I see now I was wrong to accuse the Western translators of deliberately withholding information. I can’t think of a way to translate some of these back into English either.

Take the youth film bits. The only person I know of who negotiated these hairbreadth curves with flair is David Hawkes, the Oxford don who translated the Dream of the Red Chamber, a book that is in the top-two running for China’s best novel. Youth is green, according to Chinese imagery. Hawkes turned much of it into gold, to make accessible to Western readers this tale of beautiful and prodigiously gifted young people whose sojourn in an improbable Sanssouci clashes with the sordid world of adults, the scions of aristocratic houses that are run like rotting corporations. And he caught some flak from quarrelsome Chinese critics, who reacted the way a Shakespearean actor collars a translator for editing down the Bard’s lines. And Hawkes was working from the original, not translating translations.

I haven’t said anything about Jack Nicholson as Mr. Cat Poop. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Next time, I’ll blog about why Chinese is a bigger and better language than English.