The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: August 9, 2006
SHANGHAI, Aug. 8 — For the past year and a half, said Ding Chengtai, a recent university graduate, friends have wondered why he seems to have disappeared.
Qilai Shen for The New York Times
A group of friends in Shanghai got together Saturday to watch a downloaded episode of the American sitcom “Friends,” complete with subtitles.
Mr. Ding, 23, an Internet technology expert for a large Chinese bank, chuckled at the thought. He has kept himself in virtual seclusion during his off hours, consumed with American television programs like “Lost,” “C.S.I.” and “Close to Home.”
He is no ordinary fan, though; none of the shows he watches can be seen on Chinese television. Instead, he spends night after night creating Chinese subtitles for American sitcoms and dramas for a mushrooming audience of Chinese viewers who download them from the Internet free through services like BitTorrent.
What is most remarkable about the effort, which involves dozens of people working in teams all over China, is that it is entirely voluntary. Mr. Ding’s group, which goes by the name Fengruan, is locked in fierce competition with a handful of similar outfits that share the same ambition: making American popular culture available in near-real time free to Chinese audiences, dodging Chinese censors and American copyright lawyers.
“We’ve set a goal of producing 40 TV shows a week, which basically means all of the shows produced by Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC,” Mr. Ding said, fairly bubbling about the project.
“What this means,” he said, “is that when the Americans broadcast shows, we will translate them. Our speed surpasses all the other groups in China, and our goal is to be the best American transcription service in the world.”
To a person, the adapters say they are willing to devote long hours to this effort out of a love for American popular culture. Many, including Mr. Ding, say they learned English by obsessively watching American movies and television programs.
Others say they pick up useful knowledge about everything from changing fashion and mores to medical science.
“It provides cultural background relating to every aspect of our lives: politics, history and human culture,” Mr. Ding said. “These are the things that make American TV special. When I first started watching ‘Friends,’ I found the show was full of information about American history and showed how America had rapidly developed. It’s more interesting than textbooks or other ways of learning.”
On an Internet forum about the downloaded television shows, a poster who used the name Plum Blossom put it another way.
“After watching these shows for some time, I felt the attitudes of some of the characters were beginning to influence me,” the poster wrote. “It’s hard to describe, but I think I learned a way of life from some of them. They are good at simplifying complex problems, which I think has something to do with American culture.”
Rendering American slang into Chinese is a special challenge. In an episode of “Sex and the City,” the line “I thought you two would hit it off” became “I thought you two would generate electricity together.” From “Prison Break,” the warning “Preparation can only take you so far” turned into: “People can only try to do things. It’s God’s will that ensures success.”
Whatever the programs say about American culture, translation efforts like these have received a boost from conditions particular to this country.
China combines a fast-growing population of more than 123 million Internet users, most with access to broadband service, with a stultifying television culture. The state-owned national network, CCTV, has 16 broadcast channels, but they vary little in their mixture of endless historical dramas, tepid soap operas and copycat game shows.
In an e-mail interview, a fan of American television shows who goes by the name of Happyidea and who asked not to be further identified gave this assessment of the Chinese programming: “Our own actors are not bad. Those responsible for making Chinese TV shows pathetic are the directors, screenwriters, editors and the people doing the lighting, music, special effects and makeup. There are bits of poor quality in every aspect, and it adds up to total trash.”
A longstanding practice of strict censorship that affects all Chinese media — and covers not only politics, but sexuality, violence and other subjects that form the grist of American entertainment — also drives audiences toward alternatives like downloadable television shows. And there are sharp limits on the number of American programs and Hollywood movies that can be broadcast or screened in theaters here.
Chinese authorities have long maintained strict limits on the portrayal of sexuality and, to a slightly lesser extent, violence for broadcast television.
Downloaded American television programs may have escaped those limits because, for now at least, they interest a relatively narrow segment of the population. Most viewers are college students, recent graduates and urban sophisticates who take the trouble to watch the shows on their personal computers.
Permitting the downloads may also serve as a sort of safety valve for an audience that is already accustomed to things foreign and would resent the censors’ limits.
China imported only 20 foreign movies last year, 16 of them American. American programs are similarly scarce on Chinese television.
“CCTV-8 aired ‘Desperate Housewives’ and we made a point of watching it,” said Jin Bo, 25, an English teacher and member of YDY, a leading rival to Fengruan. “I thought, Oh my God, the dubbing, the translation, why is it all so bad? It lost what made the original show wonderful, and the ratings were extremely low.”
For example, Mr. Jin said, “They would start the show at 10 p.m. and run three episodes back to back. Moreover, to adapt the program to fit the so-called situation of our country, words were eliminated or had their meanings altered. For example, the scene where Andrew reveals his homosexuality was cut.”
The rival television translation groups, by contrast, take great pride in their work, basing their translations on closed-caption transcripts in English that along with the programs themselves are typically captured on computers by collaborators in the United States and sent to China by Internet.
Strict hierarchies exist in each of the translation groups, with translators being promoted not simply for speed, which is vital, but for their faithfulness to the original material.
Official efforts to control the market for popular culture and the shows’ contents have long had the effect of encouraging piracy. Cheap DVD copies of newly released American movies have been sold on street corners throughout China for years. Recent attempts to crack down on these sales, at the insistence of the United States, have coincided with the boom in television and movie downloading, which could eventually make DVD piracy obsolete.
Representatives of American television networks said they were counting on new Chinese legislation to stop the translation and downloading of their programs.
“We are aware that because of their popularity, several Fox programs are particular targets of theft and unauthorized broadcast in territories around the world,” Teri Everett, a Fox spokeswoman, said by e-mail.
“It’s an ongoing effort, and one that will be greatly aided in China once the Chinese Internet regulations are finalized, which will clarify a number of issues relating to the enforcement of content providers’ rights on the Internet.”
Members of the translation groups are aware that their efforts may be considered a violation of copyright laws in other countries, but most view it as a mere technicality because they charge nothing for their efforts and make no profits, adhering to Chinese law.