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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Cultural Translation of U.S. Television Programs and Movies: Subtitle Groups as Cultural Brokers in China

  • Author(s): Hsiao, Chi-hua
  • Advisor(s): Ochs, Elinor
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the phenomenon of cultural translation in the context of an underground network of Internet-based amateur translators in China. Informal volunteer subtitle groups emerged in the late-1990s and began catering to the younger generation's thirst for U.S. media popular culture. This study documents the translation of U.S. TV programs and movies by Chinese youth and young adults participating in subtitle groups, and examines how these translations are shaped by cultural and social conditions in contemporary China. Based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Taipei, this dissertation examines how subtitlers' translating practices relate to the globalization of sociocultural ideologies, and how Chinese audiences respond to subtitlers' translations in online discussion forums. I explore how subtitlers and audiences co-construct the humor in U.S. television situation comedies. Their language of evaluation used to judge controversial Chinese subtitles reveals the different cultural identities that audience members present for positioning themselves as moral Chinese who are familiar with the cultural, social, and political dimensions of what constitutes a laughable element. I also examine why subtitlers add annotations that are not linguistically encoded in the original English dialogues. By creating annotations, subtitlers provide background knowledge that they believe will help audiences better understand U.S. TV programs and movies, reveal their feelings about the subtitled programs to audiences, and create a sense of involvement by sharing their opinions of U.S. media programs with a community of like-minded individuals. Moreover, I analyze how subtitlers moralize their unauthorized use of U.S. TV programs and movies based on the conviction that Chinese youth and young adults want more instant access to foreign media programs. Subtitlers turn volunteer cultural translation into a moral site, where Chinese versions of intellectual property are tested, contested, and affirmed. This study has implications for how the intersection of the ideologies of culture, translation, and media technology and the ways in which their changing relations to one another shape translating practices. Subtitle groups provide Chinese youth and young adults with a medium for articulating, acting on, and practicing their own unofficial cultural translation that they may otherwise have difficulty carrying out.

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