Subtitles matter

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"American Sci-fi film 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' subtitles come under fire in Taiwan"

By Lyla Liu, Taiwan News, Staff Writer


TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — American science-fiction film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” starring Michelle Yeoh (楊紫瓊) and Jamie Lee Curtis, received criticism from Taiwanese audiences because of its subtitles after its Taiwan premiere on April 22.

The American drama has won the one-day championship for three consecutive days since Monday (April 25), according to the chart released by Taipei Box Office Observatory. In addition, it was selected as the opening movie for the 2022 Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival.

“I am happy to go to the cinema and watch it again, but I hope the publisher can fix the ‘over-translation’ situation. I am clueless how the translator felt good about himself after translating with such an arrogant attitude,” according to a netizen named Soso Tseng’s comment on the publisher’s Facebook page.

Tseng said that many of his friends refused to watch the film solely because of the subtitles. Controversy surrounded specific translations, such as “just be a rock” in English was translated into “You are Wang Anshi (Nǐ xiànzài shì Wáng Ānshí 你現在是王安石),” or “unlovable bitch” in English was translated as "Empress Wu Zetian (Wǔ Mèiniáng ài quē 武媚娘愛缺)".  [VHM:  The Chinese mistranslation actually means "Empress Wu {when she was young} is lacking in love", not just "Empress Wu Zetian".]

The responsible translator named Andy (@ndy, 旁白鴿) responded to the comment last Saturday by posting a 1000-character long article on Facebook titled “the subtitle sucks, you suck, and your family sucks!”

Theater goers deserve better.  Movie producers deserve better.


Selected readings


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 9:12 am

    As a translation hobbyist I am interested in the extent to which this is actually bad vs. audiences being used to limp (and often just wrong) translationese in their Chinese subtitles, causing this to feel over the top. It would be interesting to look at specific examples… the one referred to in the Taiwan News article is —

    "It’s cold unlovable bitches like us make the world go round."
    >> "武媚娘愛缺,奪掌全世界"

    deserves tons of kudos — it is a "try" even if not perfect. Compare say rather plain "這世界就是需要我們這種不可愛的潑婦" suggested here

    a write-up which does give an evenhanded assessment, as opposed to piling on someone who just seems to have done their level best without help and had some fun with it…

  2. Not a naive speaker said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    Some questions about subtitles in this movie in Taiwan.

    Is this movie dubbed?
    Is the whole movie subtitled? Or just the sequences where the "average" moviegoer might not understand the dialog (e.g. when the actors speak Korean)?

    Are subtitled movies the standard in Taiwan?

    Watching movies at home has the advantage to switch off the subtitles.

  3. Calvin said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 5:32 pm

    Both subtitle examples referenced historical Chinese figures so it require some knowledge of Chinese history to understand them (assuming most Taiwanese still have).

    王安石 is best known as a reformer who tried to introduce sweeping new policies but ultimately failed. So the translation is likely a pun on his name – 安石 (安 "calm", 石 "stone") – but not his legacy.

    Empress Wu Zetian mostly referred to as 武則天. Of her many names, 武媚娘 wasn't even well-known until the TV series 武媚娘傳奇 aired in 2016. (武媚 was a bestowed name to her by the emperor, 娘 is a courtesy title similar to "madame"). Also why 愛缺 (love lacking) but not 缺愛 (lacking love)?

    It looks like the translator wanted to add his own color, in some peculiar ways.

  4. Moviegoer said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 5:53 pm

    @Jonathan Smith

    I saw the film as a native English speaker advanced Mandarin learner. The Wu Zetian subtitle is…pretty bad. I checked out the link you shared and I do think that person foes a good takedown of one reason the line doesn’t work.

    But fundamentally, the translation fails because it completely erases an important set-up in the film. This film is pretty tightly constructed with many set-ups and pay-offs, including the dialogue.

    ***Minimal spoiler summary below***

    Jodie Foster’s character reveals through a couple pieces of dialogue (including the above) that: I believe am person unworthy of love and no one else could love a person like me.

    There’s another set up where, in an attempt to do something so unlikely it’s almost impossible, a character must confess their love for Jodie Foster’s character.

    The payoff later, of course, is when that same character realizes it is possible to feel love for her: blatantly stated to Jodie Foster’s character as “You are not unlovable!”

    The Wu Zetian line doesn’t really work in that setup / payoff at all.

    ***Spoiler Over***

    The film is fantastic and would be of interest to many people who study Mandarin or English, or bilingualism, or immigrant experiences, etc.

  5. Moviegoer said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 6:04 pm

    And of course I bungled it and called Jamie Lee Curtis “Jodie Foster” –

    Please forgive me and substitute out the esteeemed actress’s correct name where appropriate.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 6:45 pm

    @Calvin for the rhyming couplet :D for what it's worth

  7. Calvin said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 8:28 pm

    @Jonathan Smith

    If the intent was to make it a rhyming couplet then that was even more problematic, for couple reasons:
    1. 愛 can either be a verb or noun (as "love" is in English), and 缺 can be an adjective ("lacking") or gerund (also "lacking"). So 愛缺 reads like "loved lacking", while 缺愛 ("lacking in love") is on point and unambiguous.
    2. At least for native speakers, you don't comprehend subtitles by mentally sounding them out – there is not enough time to keep up, let alone trying to appreciate the poetic flourish.

    Did the translator treat his audience fairly?

  8. VVOV said,

    April 29, 2022 @ 11:31 pm

    The opening scene of this movie is also somewhat interesting from a subtitles/translation perspective. The protagonist and her husband converse while rapidly code-switching between Chinese and English more than 1x per sentence (sometimes saying one clause in Chinese, then the rest in English, etc). At least in the original / U.S. version, the subtitles translate only the Chinese parts. For an English-and-not-Chinese speaker, this forces us to switch between reading (subtitle) and listening (English dialogue) up to every few seconds, which I found surprisingly challenging. I found myself wishing that the subtitles would cover the whole conversation (i.e. also transcribe the English parts)– but that's not an ideal solution either, as it erases the sense of dizzyingly fast code-switching that the filmmakers and actors likely wanted to convey. Curious how this scene was received in Taiwan too.

  9. Mark S. said,

    April 30, 2022 @ 2:03 am

    @Not a naive speaker:
    Subtitled movies are indeed the standard in Taiwan. Generally speaking, nothing is dubbed other than cartoons — and even those tend to be available even in theaters in both the original language and Mandarin (on separate screens).
    I'm not sure about the Cantonese movies from Hong Kong.

    As for the question of variations in translation, I recall that dubbed translation in Taiwan of the TV series South Park was often praised for adding local flavor. For example, in an episode about the O.J. Simpson trial, the defendant's super-smart lawyer was referred to not as Johnnie Cochran but as A-bian (a nickname for then-president Chen Shui-bian, who began his career as a human rights lawyer).

  10. Vampyricon said,

    April 30, 2022 @ 9:43 am

    @Mark S.

    Animated movies get Cantonese dubs in HK, but I don’t think I've seen a dubbed live-action movie.

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 30, 2022 @ 10:39 am

    @Calvin yes "愛缺" is clearly a hiccup (one of several) — I was simply appreciating the spirit of this attempt (can't speak to the movie as a whole); after all the translator's job, so often done poorly, should be to try to bring color/flavor when present in the original.

    A good exercise in such cases is to try to do better… Re: "It’s cold unlovable bitches like us make the world go round" — in the alternative offered above, "這個世界就是需要…" and "不可愛的” are poor and approach "translatese". Instead, surely "[the world]有[cold bitches like us]才[can go round]" or "[the world]正不可缺少~恰好少不了[cold bitches like us]" etc. will be much better?

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 30, 2022 @ 10:41 am

    Sorry, I assume the original was "It's cold bitches like us THAT make the world go round"; just now noticed this

  13. wanda said,

    April 30, 2022 @ 11:17 am

    It is so bizarre that this happened with this movie, of all things. There are many people associated with the movie who would have been able to provide perfectly good Chinese translations of what they actually meant.

  14. Ben said,

    May 1, 2022 @ 12:23 am

    Interesting. I saw the movie in the US, where the Chinese lines were subbed into English. They weren't as creative as what is referenced above – that is to say, they rarely added content to the lines. But they read very naturally in English, being very flexible with the form so as to smoothly convey the meaning.

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