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Eeee-Yow! That Translation Hurt!

Hong Kong action film subtitles may mangle meanings--but it can be fun.

August 02, 1998|Michael X. Ferraro | Michael X. Ferraro is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and occasional contributor to Calendar

"Beware!" Screaming from screens with silver are word droppings that you dare not to show to your skullholes. . . .

--Headline of this story, if translated by a Hong Kong film studio

For those watching foreign films, subtitles are generally a necessary evil, but if you happen to be a Hong Kong action buff, the captions on the bottom of the screen are nearly as entertaining as the action above.

While the evil foes of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li are forced to endure all manner of relentlessly imaginative attack, so too is the English language.

Imagine watching a tense standoff in a gunfight, only to be informed by subtitle that one of the gunmen outside the building has just said: "I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!" Kind of sucks the dramatic wind out of the scene, does it not? But that's just what flashes on-screen during "Pom Pom and Hot Hot," a Hong Kong action flick that is quite typical in its butchery of the queen's tongue.

Yet somehow, instead of detracting from their host films, these unintended one-liners--they appear on both the big screen and video release versions of most Hong Kong action films--now serve as an added bonus for the audience.

"Your mind is being blown away, both visually and in print," says Mike Wilkins, co-author of "Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-Bending Films."

Over the course of watching hundreds of films, a collection began of "hex errors," so dubbed by Wilkins' partner, Stefan Hammond, a former computer programmer. That's tech-speak for an inexplicable glitch where "something goes in one way and comes out the other," explains Wilkins, whose ready example of such gross misinterpretation is "Pal, why is your mind so stinky?" from "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star."

Wilkins and Hammond's 1996 book contains an intoxicating selection of favorite faux pas, highlights of which have made their way around the world via the Internet (see examples, Page 77). Although Wilkins says there may be "some purists who apologize for [the errors]," he believes the overwhelming majority of English-speaking viewers "are pleased with that extra level where you're going to be entertained."

"Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?"

--subtitle from "Armour of God"

Though Hong Kong is a thriving film center (having surpassed India a few years back as the world's second-largest exporter of movies, behind only the U.S.), and despite a new wave of art-house fare, the primary product is still the low-budget, formulaic martial arts films that were once tagged "chopsocky." Cranked out assembly-line style, the films boast wildly creative choreography and paper-thin plots.

Certainly, dialogue is rarely Priority No. 1, as is often the case even with high-budget U.S. action films--just witness the lead balloons regularly regurgitated by the likes of Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone.

But compounding the already-fractured syntax in the Hong Kong adaptation process are the triple-threat restrictions of money, a multilevel language barrier--involving two dialects of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, and English--and every film's ultimate nemesis: the deadline.

"I've been working on movies where we were shooting one night, and they were in theaters the next day," says actor Michael Wong, a veteran of numerous Hong Kong productions. And while a sopping wet print will surely boast its share of gaffes, both in print and otherwise, director Stanley Tong ("Supercop," "Rumble in the Bronx") is more inclined to chalk up the unintentional errors to a mixture of budgetary constraints and cultural differences.

"There's not much in the budget for subtitles," says Tong, who estimates that the average outlay for subtitling is somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500, with just two or three days (of a two- to three-week post-production schedule) allocated for the whole job. The American post-production schedule is usually three to four months.

This time frame also includes the equally arduous task of selecting ideograms for the large portion of the audience that speaks Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese dialect that is the standard in the industry.

"Some of the Chinese culture, the phrases, the dialogue . . . you just can't translate the meaning," says Tong, who speaks English fluently and attended school in Canada for three years. "Something that takes two to three words to say in Chinese, in English would take two to three paragraphs," he adds.

Obviously, the limited character space on-screen (28 letters, including spaces, for each of two lines) prevents that level of depth from being explored.

"Your dad is an iron worder, your mom sells beans."

--from "Legend of the Liquid Sword"

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