The dedicated fans translating Game of Thrones into Chinese

It takes six hours for a group of 10 young ‘fansubbers’ to create Putonghua subtitles for one episode of the hit TV show

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 10:17pm

An hour after the season finale of hit television drama Game of Thrones aired on HBO on Monday, 10 young Chinese meet online – as they have done every Monday since mid-July.

It’s 10am, and for the next six hours they have a job to do: translating the show’s dialogue into Putonghua, based on the original episode and its English subtitles.

The group members are based in Chinese cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Xian, but also in Pittsburgh in the United States and Manchester in Britain.

They work together on a cloud-based interface called Shimo Docs. Six of them do the translating, three proofread and a team leader does the final check.

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By 4pm, the subtitles – in simplified characters – are ready to go into a file format known as Advanced SubStation Alpha before they are published on one of China’s biggest subtitle sharing websites, SubHD.

Waiting for the translation are Chinese fans of the show who don’t want to pay to watch the latest episode with official Putonghua subtitles on Tencent, HBO’s exclusive online partner in China.

They can access the subtitles themselves or via a video sharing website. The practice is illegal, but despite crackdowns by the authorities in recent years, it hasn’t been stopped.

Members of the Yigui subtitling team do not get paid for this service – they are all fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin that Game of Thrones is based on.

It is one of many so-called fansubbing – or fan-subtitling – groups on mainland China, where pirated films and television series are still commonly watched.

Achilles Chen, one of the team’s two leaders who is based in Guangzhou, said it was Martin’s books that first brought them together in 2011.

“As fans of the novel [who met] on Baidu Tieba [a communication platform run by Chinese search giant Baidu], we were very excited that a television series had been produced based on the book. But we found that many of the Chinese subtitles didn’t work so well – mainly because the translators hadn’t read the books,” said Chen, who is known online as Shizi.

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They weren’t the only ones who were disappointed. As a result, Qu Chang, who was one of the Chinese translators of Martin’s first five books, began translating the television subtitles for fans of the show.

But Qu was doing the translations in his own time, and it was hard to keep on top of it on his own, Chen said. That’s when some of the fans from Tieba joined in.

Qu is now an adviser to Yigui, and the fansubbing team continues to grow.

It’s a big task – each episode has 400 to 700 lines, depending on the length of the fight scenes, and the translations have become more difficult in recent seasons, Chen said.

“The earlier seasons were closer to the novel, so four translators were enough,” he said. “Now we have six.”

Chen has been part of the group since the first season, and he has seen many volunteers with varied backgrounds come and go over the years.

“We are all normal people with our own jobs and lives. We do it for free,” he said.

A former Yigui member who declined to be named said fansubbing groups in China generally specialised in one area. Some translated a variety of films and TV series, others focused on a particular genre or actor, while others focused on classics, documentaries or minority languages, she said.

Like most of them, Yigui has remained non-profit. But one thing that sets it apart is that its sole focus is the Game of Thrones series.

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Tencent had approached the group in the past to work with it, according to the former member, but the negotiations went nowhere.

“They offered us a paltry 200 yuan to 300 yuan (US$30 to US$45) per episode. We may as well have been [working for Tencent] for free,” said the fansubber, who worked on the Putonghua translations of two seasons of the show.

For now, the group intends to carry on producing the subtitles on a voluntary basis. Chen said he could not see any possibility of Yigui entering into a commercial partnership in the short term.

“The best thing for a subtitling team is to be purchased by an official producer or its partner, but it needs to be a good price and good timing,” he said.