VICE uncovers secret world of China’s Sherlock subtitlers
We all know that Sherlock fans can err on the side of obsessive. What few previously knew, however, is that a group of around 200 unpaid volunteers in China have been dedicating their lives to translating the British drama series into Chinese for over 59,000 online followers. This phenomenon of ‘fansubbing’ is something that Jamie Fullerton of VICE’s Motherboard has recently brought to our attention.
Interviewed in her cramped bedroom in Wuhan, Central China, 26-year-old Cassie, the leader of an amateur subtitling group called iSherlock, told Fullerton:
“The Sherlock plots are intriguing and the heroes are attractive with charisma. I read the original books then the drama came out and I felt it connected with my life. The way the hero expresses his emotions is different to any others I have seen.”
Sherlock fansubber, Cassie
In recent years, similar ‘fansub’ organisations to iSherlock, including YYeTs – a group that operated like a massive company utilising thousands of unpaid subtitlers – were shut down by China’s National Copyright Administration, and their leaders arrested. So why do fansub groups put themselves at risk by continuing with this covert activity of subtitling?
The answer is rather political. With China’s central government seeing little value in art, and banning many popular shows from official channels, the fansubbing of Western shows streaming online has fuelled and answered to local appetites for a largely restricted foreign culture.
“The government prohibited a large number of dramas without giving us specific reasons, so instead it was the groups that served as the real ambassadors of spreading culture,” Cassie said. “The government just doesn’t show a big interest in promoting the arts. Seems like we filled the gap”.
Beijing-based film industry worker Min Lin went one further, and investigated the Chinese public’s interest in Sherlock and fansub groups for a thesis when studying at Warwick University in 2013.
“People have gone elsewhere to get what they want because now they can,” said Lin. “In the past you just didn’t get these things on the big websites so [you] had to go underground. But for the series that aren’t so popular there’s still space for fansub groups … In Sherlock there are a lot of cultural references most Chinese people won’t know about and slang terms, so some groups would put explainers in as extra captions. Some subtitlers just want to be as close as possible to the original meaning. But another type of subtitler will translate it using Chinese slang, to simplify it and help people understand it”.
“Sherlock is very popular here in China,” continued Cassie. “So although there are other Sherlock fansub groups people have different ideas and opinions about the same lines. Some subtitlers feel characters’ emotions stronger than others. People can choose their favorite versions, but our first concern is the basic quality of the translation … I just hope we find a justified way to continue our work. Benedict is dedicated. When watching his performance you feel exactly what he wants to express. We hope we can keep on doing something to help the heroes of this drama.”
Read the whole feature on VICE’s Motherboard.