When “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” was released last May, it was tough to find an admirer, but it still grossed more than $300 million in America alone. That’s a daunting figure – until you consider that its box-office revenue exceeded $650 million overseas. As with many movies, a large chunk of profits came from China.

But the “Pirates” the Chinese people saw on screen was quite different from the one released in the United States, and it isn’t alone in that respect.

Dubious post-postproduction choices are commonplace when it comes time to re-sell a product. Deconstructing a film from its original intentions and context is bad enough, but that’s not the worst of it.

In the United States, poor translations offending smaller audiences in foreign countries are relegated to “amusing” blurbs in Entertainment Weekly. Films can be chopped down to nothing more than a series of violent action scenes, because it’s easier to translate a sequence with less dialogue. Major studios like Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. create cheap, straight-to-video genre fare looking for a fast buck. They do it all the time, and the money comes back to the United States in spades.

Most notably, Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp., has been accommodating the Chinese government’s demands for years in the manipulation of his company’s media. 20th Century Fox, the subsidiary studio of News Corp., competes directly with Viacom and Disney, among others, in hopes of making money.

According to The New York Times, Murdoch’s News Corp. sends more media to China than any other group – at a price of $68 million – which in turn brings Murdoch upward of $50 billion in revenue.

So what do Murdoch and his gang of suits change in their product? Murdoch whole-heartedly abides by China’s censorship laws. Meaning, if a film is not of a certain “discipline,” it’ll get taken apart. Unfortunately, all big studios succumb to this.

Take “Pirates 3.” Chinese censors, irked by the presence of actor Chow-Yun Fat as a Singapore crime lord, cut his scenes by a whole 10 minutes. Disney was content with the decision, no doubt helped by the knowledge they could offer more screen showings with a shorter run time. A Chinese cut of 2004’s “Troy” was also shortened, creating an entirely new version of nothing more than a series of fights and provocative shots of Brad Pitt.

Action scenes are universal, just not substantial. DVD enables studios to produce and pump out genre flicks that are easily accessible to other regions. Jet Li, Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van-Damme have benefited greatly from this: Their successes in the last decade have been nominal, but notable in their ability to water down the market with cheap, crappy action flicks. That people watch dumbed-down versions of already simple material is an afterthought when the studio can simply string together a streamlined series of action scenes. It’s shameless.

The international market has also been racked with scrutiny over subtitling issues. American films that have gone into theaters overseas have been the subject of criticism for poor translation and inadvertently offensive texts. Yet we either don’t care or are completely unaware of it happening.

Studios actually tighten their pockets come release time and lower translator budgets. It’s called “machine translation,” and it involves complex computer systems that take sounds in numerous countries and dump them into generic texts to be mass consumed. With it comes the assumption that the translation will be accurate and cross-culturally understood. Nuance? Accuracy? Forget it.

“What a lot of companies do is use machine translation to get the gist of something,” said Roy Tell, a representative of Applied Language Solutions, in a phone interview. “But then they could have it proof-read, meaning have a human translator go through it and make adjustments.”

Often, he said, that doesn’t happen.

Tell said this can happen with exported movies, but he couldn’t name specific cases, since the occurrences unsurprisingly aren’t the subject of extensive research. It’s never clear who, if anyone, takes the blame, but major studios always walk away.

Hollywood movies aren’t just for Americans. The United States is the biggest producer of movies in the world, and for good reason. People around the world love our celebrities and the sight and spectacle of a brand name logo in front of a movie the same way we do. It’s why films are marketable. It’s why they make so much money.

But in order to keep people coming, entertainment has to be translated. This is culture on the export, and though context will inescapably be lost in many cases, its spirit should not. It’s unfortunate that those translations dismiss the inevitable human elements, and for little reason beyond maximum profit return.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *