Save Matt Damon! — or, Why These Chinese Viewers Don’t Want You To See “The Great Wall”

Just about the only good thing that comes out of Chinese censorship is the popular talkback. The imagination of the online Chinese community leaps and soars, as they lightly arch their necks against the boot keeping them down. After all, they are kept in a rosy state of fresh chafe by whispered rumors of people taken away for posting a comment, the uncertainty of whether a favorite column will survive the latest round of official scrubbing, and goofy admissions from Chinese Internet companies that “aliens have abducted the webpage you’re trying to access”:




That cutesiness is the most outspoken the company can get about gag orders from on high. Chinese Internet users are fed up. They long to strike back at the daily scorn of censors powered by their tax dollars. Woe, then, to the object of their collective wrath, such as the collaboration between the Chinese and Hollywood, the movie “Great Wall” starring Matt Damon, due out February 2017.

Here is a quick sum-up of what the most upvoted Chinese users of (Goodreads and Imdb rolled into one), have to say about the “Great Wall”:

“So spineless Hollywood was knocked to its knees with cold hard Chinese cash – I can accept that. But why should our very own Matt Damon get dragged into this muck? Giv’im back to me!”

“I can’t tell you how much I wanted this icky movie to be one gigantic prank, just a cult movie concocted by Director Zhang Yimou.”

“Okay, fine, Jing Tian’s acting is world-class —— now will you please drop the gun?”

A little aside about the gun. The Chinese government brought in the operators of the Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Amazon for a chiding recently. They thought the sites were not doing a good enough job as gatekeepers of movie-goer reviews. Ambitious well-heeled domestic productions that sail forth with the full blessing of the propaganda department consistently flounder on the open sea of audience opinion. The authorities ordered more patriotism and less criticism in movie reviews by users. In other words, the government has just made movie reviews political.

One of the upsides of the ban on political comments of any kind in China is the chromatic way it paints everything political, in the sense that it raises political awareness in people who otherwise wouldn’t notice or care. Censors cast a wide net. To debate whether soup kitchens, legal aid and tutoring networks for children should be supervised by the police can catapult your average Joanie swiping her iPhone 7 to dissident status overnight. Chinese Internet users return the courtesy by twiddling with the many and exquisitely painful thorns buried in the side of the Chinese leadership. In this instance, they maliciously speculate that Jing Tian, the female lead of “Great Wall,” got the role through high-level connections within the Chinese system.

For Jing Tian is a great mystery. Of a belabored, heavy-duty beauty, with eyes surgically enlarged to achieve the terror-stricken stare of silent-film era stars in vogue, she has starred in a series of box office and critical low-ballers that hemorrhaged eye-popping sums of money. A veteran Chinese co-star provided an insight into the reason for her low popularity. Her icebreaker on the set was nothing short of artless: “I don’t know the first thing about acting. Do your best with that!” Only someone who paid to play could have afforded such disarming candor. Who footed her bill? There is a list of four names in circulation. A deputy Vice Minister of Propaganda? One of the direct descendants of the men who founded People’s Republic of China on a platform of banning official privilege? The possibilities are as fruitfully ironic as the imagination of the online Chinese republic, the only place in China where one can speak up.

But “Great Wall” could have survived even an association with the hybrid monster of a proletarian princess, if it had been done well. Part of audience disappointment is directed at Zhang Yimou himself. This one-time Gold Lion winner, whose courageous exploration of forbidden cultural and political territory was once banned (“To Live”), morphed into a champion of the state long ago. His movies consistently toe the censor-mandated line that the people of China require benevolent despotism to save them from their own folly and weakness. Viewers will never tire of revisiting this smarting betrayal, by tearing Zhang’s output to shreds. Hollywood merely put the finishing touches on this disaster, spitting out a predictable script “with as many plot holes as monsters.”

Little surprise, then, that “Great Wall” is struggling with a 50% rating on Douban (worse than 93% of all fantasy movies), despite a surge of paid boosters who attack the film’s detractors for “kissing the foreigners’ ass” and “sneering condescension at their own culture.” (Both the government and businesses in China are adroit manipulators of culture wars – sounds familiar?)

The Chinese government has reportedly gotten very good at jiggling Western guilt about the legacy of imperialism to get what they want. That’s how it got all these movers and shakers of the American policy establishment to accept, for decades, the bad things it does to its own people. (The idea is that if China should stop manhandling the Chinese, chaos would ensue. It’s fitfully benevolent despotism seen from a different angle.) If you feel bad that the Western powers had humiliated China for 150 years, keep that 50% rating in mind when debating whether to shell out another $39 bucks for your next movie outing. Follow the Chinese  people’s advice and skip the “Great Wall.”  The Chinese government would be delighted that the West is finally, in keeping with their rising power, looking to the Chinese for guidance. President Xi and company figure that the average Chinese patriot will be more willing to overlook the way they are treated at home, if their country is great again abroad. Sounds familiar?


Where Has All the Chinese Internet Traffic Gone? – Business Solutions to Content Overload in China

The Chinese content market offers a fascinating comparison to the rest of the global Internet. According to research by KPCB and Hillhouse Capital, Chinese Internet users numbered 688 million by the end of 2015. Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter clone, saw its market worth catch up to Twitter at around 11 billion dollars in 2016. Tencent, the owner of popular social messaging app WeChat, achieved a market capitalization of $242.04 billion in August 2016.

An underlying factor to consider in understanding China’s online content market is its unique appeal to readers. The Internet offers Chinese users more space for free expression and access to news than offline. That unique appeal translates into more eyeballs and advertising revenue, and Chinese businesses have been fighting fiercely over the prize. Here is a snapshot of two notable trends in China’s mobile content apps market, currently dominated by WeChat but remaining open to ambitious and nimble startups:

Information overload

Like elsewhere, content has exploded on the Chinese Internet and harmed user experience. For example, the Financial Times ran an article in April 2016 titled “Overloaded China users battle ‘WeChat fatigue’” stating that many of the app’s 806 million users find WeChat content, distributed through channels which include 13 million official accounts, “overwhelming and useless.” According to academics at Fudan University and Guangdong Foreign Language University, China’s top mobile news apps, such as Tencent and Sohu, suffer from the same malaise of overflowing information that is badly organized and comes with little personalization. One important demographic factor underpinning this problem of too much content chasing too few viewers is that the growth in both users and time spent on the Internet has been flattening, according to the tech site Huxiu.

User response in turn has been punishing. According to a year-end report on the “WeChat Ecosystem” by Yeezan, a digital media service platform, official accounts are losing followers and page views; featured stories at popular accounts (some with millions of followers) see an 8.9% click-through rate. Dishonest tactics attempting to cover up such decline illustrate the extent of the problem. Reports of faked clicks and bought “zombie” followers to the tune of 1,000 for $3 on WeChat went viral in September 2016.

Solutions to information overload reshaping the content space

In some fascinating ways, WeChat is illustrating the possible outer limits of content distribution via social networking. Chinese commentators have pointed to sources of strain within WeChat that are likely contributing to its declining reach:

1. As social grows, quality slumps:

Both the quality and personalization of the information users receive tend to decline as social network broadens and content from less familiar contacts dilute the information stream, until the stream explodes by several orders of magnitude;

2. Winner-take-all:

The of traffic flows to a small number of top influencers, and the cost of acquiring followers is increasingly steep for latecomers.

3. A laggard in algorithm adoption, WeChat still largely relies on a timeline structure with minimum filtering.

Users have been flocking to curation that pares down content in ways tailored to their preferences. Jingri Toutiao (“Today’s Headlines”), the 4-year-old newcomer mobile news app that has gained an impressive advantage over competitors from traditional portals (such as Netease, Sohu and Tencent), solves the problem using algorithms with impressive success. It now boasts 580 million users, 63 million active daily users, and some of the longest average daily use time in the industry. Tencent News comes in a remote second, with 120 million users.

Consequently, there are now signs that the news industry is investing in algorithms and moving away from human curation. The Chief Editor at Sohu News, for example, is leaving the company, and CEO Zhang Chaoyang admitted to reporters that they are reorganizing the editorial team to take advantage of machine curation. Zhihu, Quora’s Chinese equivalent, stopped having its team of professional experts curate answers, throwing open the door to all users to crowdsource recommendations.

What next?

From the point of view of Chinese users, there is a lot of room for improvement. In response to declining reach, advertisers have been pulling back from WeChat. The WeChat team is now getting its toes wet in developing algorithms and intervening more actively in content distribution. One analyst pointed out that, even though the company is sitting on a goldmine of data comparable to that of Facebook, only 10%, or $514 million, of Tencent’s overall revenue comes from advertising, of which WeChat’s advertising income is only a portion. Similarly, despite its vaunted technical edge, Toutiao’s content customization is rudimentary compared to Facebook’s FYI. Yidian, Toutiao’s acknowledged rival that just received D-series funding, is vowing to improve user experience with a combination of search, human and machine curation. A head-on collision between WeChat and upstart rivals may be hovering on the horizon, and bear close watching. A lot of money hangs in the balance.












美國的廢人,據他們自己說,像是很不少。美國的哲學家或文化評點泰斗,得往電視往夜店裡找,都是講脫口秀的,郭德綱一流人物。在大麻合法之前,美國社會門戶大開,“供應兩種刺激物質,週一到五咖啡因值班,支持生產力,週末酒精接力,這樣才能喝高喝笨,不至於察覺自己在坐大牢”(比爾稀客思,Bill Hicks, 1961-94)。 由此推斷,上班族不廢不笨的,少之又少。
















女兒順口提了一句:我這數學已經算上來了,總分是B,這學期到現在考的都是B 和 C。我心裡緩緩浮出一隻巴掌,做勢甩過去:考個乙你也好意思誇口,你不害臊,我都替你害臊!我眼睜睜和那隻長著獰厲眼嘴的巴掌對看,等它化作青煙四散。









且玩且讀 —— 歐遊讀書雜記

旅遊的時候,要不要帶書,帶什麼樣的書,一向是個為難的選擇。最正宗的自然是「量身定做派」︰知道要去黃山或康斯坦丁堡了,就事先作好功課,勤懇精確的帶上《徐霞客遊記》或蒙太固夫人的《土耳其使館書簡》(Turkish Embassy Letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)。除此之外,還有認為「行萬里路,讀萬卷書」的上下聯勢不能同時並行不悖,堅持純粹體驗,旅行時只讀導遊書的「原教旨派」;擔心被職業導遊和七彩明信片的刻板印象先入為主,連導遊書也不看,要保留想像童貞直到和異地相見歡為止的「驚喜掛帥派」;以及因為沒作功課,錯過羅孚宮的水晶妝臺或融聖妙狂蕩于一身的聖德列莎雕像,捶胸頓足的「事後追悔派」等等。于這些派別,我或多或少都做過入門弟子,滄桑甘苦,一時也說不盡。























他们这一讲,我不免想起我作为美籍华人,『人民当家作主』,给过共和党『一块儿我的脑袋』(美国俚语)。四五年前去本地的县赶集(county fair), 带孩子看看牲口,坐旋转咖啡杯,吃点子棉花糖啥的,遇见站岗的共和党候选人西装革履,欠身握手殷勤赶着拉票。我行礼如仪,客气的告诉他:『我搬来美国三十余年,作為读過研的白領,无论从哪一重身份看来:移民,亚裔,女性,中產,贵党的所论所为,从未予我替我出力的印象。希望贵党以后能够校正方向,争取我们的票仓。』(这是美式的温柔敦厚我其实想说你大爷的你们哪一回不是践踏我们去讨好白人男主子?每次这样违反本性,吃力好吗,害我又多吃了一团棉花糖。)


Google Translate Chinese: Passionate Mainframes



Google Translate claims that it has made significant strides. A couple of Sinologists I know tested it for Chinese to English, and declared it wanting. I figured I’d round out the picture, and test it the other way around.


Admittedly this is a short list. Give me a reason to make it longer next time, Google.


Save the date

Google translation: Expiration date. (保存日期 )

Human translation: 标记日历


Airbnb) Passionate and dedicated hosts

Google translation: Filled with passion and dedicated mainframes (充满激情和专用主机 )

Human translation: 热忱尽心的房东


(Paradise Lost) Evil, come be my good

Google translation: ungrammatical; the closest English gibberish may be: “Evil, good what is come belongs to me.” (邪恶,来是我的好。)

Human translation: Evil, come be my good (恶呀,你来做我的善吧。)


This last flourish of genius was quoted by the rediscovered writer Mu Xin (木心),  a recent cult phenomenon among the liberal educated young in China. Not sure if the rendition originated with him, or whether some Republican-era translator supplied it.

『閒話英文中譯』: 查生字水性楊花之必要




原文作 “the most painful song ever recorded,” 看了不怕小粉紅不驕敵自得,大外宣把美帝調戲得拖甲曳兵,創痛平生。殊不知原文字面上意思,並非去到盡頭的劇痛,而近乎北京俗語的“牙磣,” 像聽釘子刮玻璃那種鑽到牙齦裡的酸冷,實在是“做事離譜之極,旁人看著都替你難受著急”之意。認真要中譯,或可寫做“令人不忍卒聽。” 又則,這句型並非正規書面語,乃年輕人誇張輕倩沒三兩重的口語,網路博眼球之用。類似造句包括:

OMG, I’d never seen an outfit that hideous in my life!

諸如此類的“至今最…””有生以來從來沒…” 不建議直接口服,要配著”腦袋瓜那麼大的一顆鹽”吞下(take it with a grain of salt the size of my head。”中文人話的說法,就是“聽聽就好“”酌量參考。”不相信,看紐時或衛報,選情再火爆,川普再胡鬧,也絕不使用最高級形容詞:Donald Trump Is the Most Hate-driven Candidate in US History (川普是美國有史以來最滿腔恨毒的總統候選人)

現代中文翻英文,深情款款,此心不渝,看到辭典第一義就認死扣。依我說,還是水性楊花一點的好。順便多事雞婆一句(大陸的說法是:鹹吃蘿蔔淡操心)上圖據說摹寫的是杜甫的麗人行,“楊花雪落覆白蘋,青鳥飛去銜紅巾。” 杜甫不怕跨省,對網警比中指,公然搬出楊國忠和妹妹虢国夫人亂倫的性醜聞壓軸: “炙手可熱勢絕倫, 慎莫近前丞相嗔,” 膽兒肥碩頂喉嚨了,壯哉!

中文觀點: 中共“军事文化网络主题论坛”上透露了什么信息


For Indie Authors: the State of Translations in China


Chinese translation: My watch’s run out of battery.



There is increasing awareness among indie authors that their sales hinges in part on how good a job their translator does. Overseas markets now beckon like so many Hesperides, their walls freshly fallen to the battering ram of the Internet. Babel, however, still reigns within. Authors, who are now happily in control of virtually all aspects of their work, find that they cannot vouch for the new face – some would argue, the reincarnation – their brainchild is to take on elsewhere.

Given the interest in the China book market and its relative opaqueness, I thought I’ll take a crack at summing up a few facts and themes about the state of translation of foreign books in China, as voiced in the Chinese press. This is meant as backup to a lot of the good resources out there, such as Christine Sun’s reporting. If you are an indie author who want to make inroads in China with a translation that does justice to your work, take a look.

(1) A lot of Chinese translations are bad

This is a long-running pet peeve among China’s arbiters of culture. One of China’s largest Internet portals, Tencent, carries a 2013 special feature story titled “Translations as Gibberish: Who’s at Fault for Screwing up Translations of Copyrighted Works.” The article begins with a memorable quote:


“I know every single word on the page, but when strung together they don’t make the least bit of sense,” such is the immediate impression of many readers toward contemporary translations of foreign books.

And this remains the verdict throughout. In late 2015, when controversy erupted over a new translation of Tagore, another prominent media outlet, Phoenix, ran a similar lament.

The common Chinese reader embraces these gripes as heartily as they poke fun at the censors they love to hate. There are pages of collections, hash tags and exclamation-riddled reviews devoted to rotten translations on Douban alone (China’s answer to Goodreads.) When such errors slash and burn their way through a book, the ravages sustained by characters, plot and style is as arbitrary as it is systematic. Some seasoned translators cover their tracks with aplomb and occasionally a wayward genius. Readers walk away only slightly discommoded, marveling at the author’s puny powers or ostentatiously foolish waste of their time.

Those who crave the gory details can look to my upcoming piece.

(2) Poor working conditions and race to the bottom

The underlying causes deserve several doctoral theses; a brief summary ought to suffice. According to Chinese reporters and commentators, an array of factors are to blame.

As market competition becomes more fierce, traditional publishers in bidding wars for well-regarded foreign titles cut cost by paying translators less. According to one 2015 research report released by quasi-governmental organizations on translation, translators are both better educated and worse paid than other workers; over half make less than the median income, even though 96% have at least a college degree. Translation cycles run between one and three months long, and the book is almost invariably split among several translators. It goes without saying that this hurts the brilliantly written, inventive, fact-packed, or otherwise noteworthy books the most. Likewise overworked editors are often not in a position to sew up, like Ali Baba’s hired tailor, the helter skelter body parts – editorial and stylistic consistency go by the wayside.

Turned off by a Darwinian market, the best translators exit the profession for greener pastures; those who remain farm out their assignments in order to make a living. A teeming army of college students can pay their phone bill, as well as prepare for their English certification exam, Band 4, by taking on slivers of foreign books. Things hit a new low in recent years, when high school students in foreign language programs signed on to the tail end of the food chain, often through recruitment ads on the web.

(As a contrast, consider that the best Chinese novelists, playwrights and poets had done the most enduring translations of Western classics until relatively recently. In one well-known instance, writers Xiao Qian and Wen Jieruo, a married couple, spent four years over “Ulyssses.”)

Finally, to make a quick buck, Chinese publishers continue to get creative in all the wrong places. Again, for brevity’s sake,  here is one deplored practice: Some publishers have been known to come up with phantom translators — award-winning fixtures in some illustrious grove of academe — under whose fictional names dozens of titles in an obscene number of languages are churned out within half a year. I have seen legit Chinese translators on Internet forums look to haphazardly edited machine translations as one of the few plausible explanations for this extraordinary fecundity.

(3) Hopeful trends for better Chinese translations

Not all is doom and gloom. The paying public in China is rapidly becoming more discerning. The stages of Chinese development are remarkably compressed; things that take decades to unfold elsewhere zip through in a few years here. There is increasing recognition that badly translated titles perpetuate a vicious cycle of oversupplied markets and disgruntled buyers that does not serve any part of the publishing industry well. Meanwhile, foreign titles top the critics’ lists of recommended reading, enjoying a popularity that is, rather ironically, fostered by censors. In keeping the creativity of Chinese writers in check, censorship makes foreign works more alluring.

The Internet also offers new solutions to the problem of shoddy translations, by giving online translator communities more visibility and channels to evaluate the professional reputation of star translators (notwithstanding a quite severe problem with paid Internet marketing). Those who excel in the face of the long odds are fiercely passionate about their craft, toil tirelessly in its service, and defend their right to a decent living the best they can. In other words, they are the kind of people indie authors this side of the pond would find a lot to talk about with.

In Chinese, wage slaves complain of having to “dining on the wind and farting smoke (喝风屙烟).” Chinese translators enjoy little legal or de facto protection against contractual breaches and withheld wages. They cannot be expected to do right by the titles they are entrusted with, when they’re treated worse than a server farm. Under the changing dynamics of indie publishing, we may be able to find a way to change those realities. Better livelihoods make better books.

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. 

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



Google translation tattoo no translation 0416

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.