China’s ‘subtitling communities’ didn’t just pirate, they helped a generation learn English

Society & Culture

Earlier this month, Shanghai police raided Renren Yingshi, a large video-sharing platform that relied on the work of online communities to add user-created subtitles to foreign TV shows and movies. What is the future of these subtitling groups?

Illustration by Derek Zheng

In the summer of 2005, while I was visiting hometown friends and spending time with family, my fellow sophomores at Tsinghua University were toiling in a summer English camp on campus. The university had decided that the majority of its students, who were engineers, needed a boost in their English skills, so summer break was cut short, and all but a few from our cohort were summoned back on campus in early August. I was more or less an English major and was spared from this ordeal.

Later, my friend Michael told me that he skipped the entire camp and stayed in his dorm, where he binge-watched Friends. When I rolled my eyes, he said, “What? I was improving my English! Watching Friends has taught me way more than that stupid camp would’ve!”

I couldn’t blame him. I, too, binge-watched Friends and other American TV shows during that time, which helped accelerate my English learning. With some of my favorites like The X-Files, I would watch each episode three times — first with Chinese subtitles, then with English, then without any subtitles. Each time, I picked up a few more slangs and idioms.

The English subtitles were original, pirated along with the videos from foreign sources. The Chinese subtitles were an add-on, the work of various subtitle translators communities known as zìmù zǔ 字幕组 — subtitling groups. Many groups shared their captioned video resources on their online forums, where registered users could download videos for free.

On February 3, the Shanghai police raided Renren Yingshi, one of the largest video-sharing sites of this kind. Fourteen people were detained for allegedly pirating more than 20,000 films and television programs. The police estimated that members of the group had earned more than 16 million yuan ($2.48 million) through subscription fees, advertising, and hard-drive sales.

Fans expressed their worries as soon as the news reached the internet. On Douban, China’s IMDB-like social networking site, multiple commenters petitioned to save what they called “the manufacturers of spiritual food for an entire generation.”

Besides Renren Yingshi, there are hundreds of similar subtitling groups, such as Shooter, Ragbear, Garden of Eden. Most groups work independently, taking on projects that haven’t been translated by any other group. An administrator from one group that wishes to remain anonymous tells me that most members join to improve their English. Some are fans of particular films or series through which they learn about the West.

Not everyone can join, though. All groups have entry tests to ensure a decent standard of English. Those who translate content in other languages, such as Japanese or Spanish, are also required to provide certification of proficiency. Some even require field knowledge: to translate ER, my source tells me they recruited medical professionals on the group’s website.

According to the person I spoke to, a 42-minute episode usually requires three to four translators who must deliver within one to two weeks. Other groups who follow current shows are on an even tighter schedule: I remember downloading new Desperate Housewives episodes just days after they were aired on ABC. Once translation is completed, the project leader proofreads everything, followed by post-production, which consists of technical work like formatting and synchronizing.

On the Tsinghua campus, resources were shared via the intranet; downloading a Friends episode took me a matter of seconds. Depending on the sources, some subtitles appeared right at the bottom of the video, but most came as a separate file. Once synched, a green arrow would appear on the bottom-right of the screen, spiraling upward (this was the era of Microsoft). By right-clicking on it, I could choose to show or hide the subtitles, Chinese or English. At the end of each episode, the name of the subtitling community would appear: Shooter, Ragbear, Garden of Eden. There was also a disclaimer: “This video is for personal learning purposes only. Commercial distribution is prohibited.”

The translators didn’t just translate, they also explained cultural context. I remember reading their notes on top of the screen about Deep Throat and various U.S. government agencies while watching The X-Files. The explanations took up a lot of screen space, so over time, the format had been changed. In one episode of House of Cards, which was a more recent fan favorite, the show notes overrode the ending credits, explaining the role of U.S. Senate committee chairmanship, university provosts, and C-Span.

At some point, more captions started appearing at the top of the screen. Dubious advertisements such as for underground casinos rotated throughout the program. After I graduated from college and went to the U.S. for grad school, I would sometimes try searching for a film on Baidu, but links that contained the words “download or watch online for free” would redirect me to porn sites. There were also fewer options, and the major sites staggered between available and not. According to multiple Chinese reports, since 2006, when Renren Yingshi was founded, its website has been shut down six times.

In 2009, China’s National Radio and Television Administration issued a ban on the spreading of unauthorized films and television programs on the internet. By the end of that year, over a hundred video sharing sites had been shut down. Within a few years, commercial platforms like Tencent and iQiyi began purchasing programs from overseas, charging subscribers a monthly fee for legal access. Subtitling communities faced an existential crisis. Some like Renren Yingshi began to commercialize.

But there is one problem with the commercial platforms — the content they provide is heavily censored, devoid of violence, sex, and politically sensitive subjects. An industry insider told China Newsweek that compared with domestic programming, which requires word-for-word scrutinizing of its script, foreign content is much easier to manage: scenes deemed unfit can be cut; if there are too many unfit scenes, the platform just won’t purchase the program.

With shows that are deemed fit, there is another problem — viewers need subtitles. Some commercial platforms sought collaborations with subtitling groups, but most of these fell through, with reasons including low pay offered to translators. Some of the translators’ works have ended up on commercial platforms anyway, and at the end of the programs, there are blurred-out marks over captions that once read: Shooter, Ragbear, Garden of Eden.

The person from the subtitling group I spoke to tells me that commercial platforms haven’t had much impact on them. After all, fans want to see the uncut versions. Despite the downfall of Renren Yingshi, the person thinks that communities of its kind will always be around. “Where there is demand, there is supply.” Currently the group does not have any commercial partnerships. All members are volunteers. “We do not want profit to get in the way of what we do,” the representative says. “We still hold the old principle of these subtitling communities — work out of love.”

By the time I went to the U.S., I no longer needed subtitles to watch any shows. I knew enough about American culture to carry out a conversation with anyone I met. During a political communication class, I referenced Deep Throat in talking about the relationship between government and press. The professor was impressed.

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