Awful subtitle translations mar Guardians of the Galaxy release in China

How much damage can some lazy translation work do to a film franchise? For Marvel, whose summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy opened in China earlier this month, the damage levels may be, well, intergalactic.

When it opened in the United States in August, Guardians of the Galaxy had critics raving and made just under $70 million in its opening weekend, shattering previous August records. By contrast, Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team, as it seems to have been translated and localised in China (seriously?!) took in less than half of that amount and was met with very lukewarm reviews.

Bad subtitles translations lie at the heart of the disappointing opening, and the weird title is just one of many problems.

“Twist ass”

The China Daily reported that are up to 80 mistranslations in the film’s Mandarin subtitles, which continuously fail to properly present English puns, expressions and homophones. Pop Culture blog the Mary Sue has compiled a list of some of the most outrageous, including how, rather than teaching “people with sticks up their butts to enjoy dancing,” Kevin Bacon in Footloose “taught people how to twist ass”.

It begs the question, not just whether some of these translations were even done by a human, but whether they were even proofed whatsoever before the film went out to cinemas.

You can see the full list here.

This is not the first time that Hollywood blockbusters have seen their releases marred in the Middle Kingdom by lackluster translation work; The Hunger Games and Skyfall also reportedly had Chinese audiences wondering why characters in large American productions tend to often spurt out mere gibberish.

Investing in China

The degree of unprofessionalism in translating for local audiences is worrying, however, given the enormous potential of the Chinese market.

It has only been recently that Hollywood has come close dominating the Chinese box office, in the same manner, it does in much of Western Europe, despite strict quotas on foreign films. Currently, only 34 foreign-made films are allowed to be released in China per year, increased from 20 only two years ago.

Nevertheless, American film production companies have recently shown significantly more determining in fostering relationships and partnerships in China. The Guardian reported that former Warner Bros president Jeff Rubinov had signed a $1 billion deal with Chinese investment giant Fosun to make films in China, as well as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Furthermore, Disney, which owns Marvel, announced an $800 million deal with a consortium of Chinese state-owned companies this year, boosting investment into Shanghai Disneyland, which is scheduled to open next year.

The perils of cutting costs

Success in these ventures, however, hinges on the success of American films in the region. And cutting costs, taking shortcuts and translating such films in a manner that fails to be not just comprehensible but also entertaining to local audiences is a recipe for failure.

The lesson to be learnt here for distributors is that success in one country does not necessarily translate into success in another. Consumers should not be taken for granted, and efforts should be made to adapt and localise for foreign audiences as if you were localising for your own.