I generally try to stay away from Western films with Eastern themes, because despite over a century of colonization/trading relations, the whole “mysticism” veil still persists. Admittedly, I’m always extra sensitive when people of my (East Asian) ethnic background are portrayed in western media, especially since the cultural and linguistic similarities are very scarce.  But on a whim, since I used to be a Jet Li fan (notably before he broke into Western media), I decided to try out Forbidden Kingdom (2008).

But this blog isn’t a personal film review, although I will say that the effects were stunning and impressive. The plot was also decent. But as far as the linguistic angle goes, there seemed to be some awkward lines. Within 30 minutes of the film, I’d already caught some very awkward translations:

1. “Five Element Mountain” (probably 五行山; from the cinematic overlay, it’s actually a series of mountains.)
I mean, yes, technically anything can be a mountain’s name, but it’s either X’s Mountain or Mt. X. And, as it turns out, the whole Chinese alchemical philosophy of five basic elements (water, fire, earth, metal, wood) didn’t even come up in the film, so I would have gone for a more natural gloss like “the Elemental Mountains”. But even if you *had* to keep the “five” in there, I’d at least have made it “Five-Elements Mountain”

2. “Most excellent stick-fighting… ”
Sure you didn’t mean “staff”? The dude was fighting with a pretty ornate metal rod; it’s not like he was swinging a tree branch around… . This one is kinda ambiguous, actually, because complisults are pretty common in fight-scenes. But the guy continued by saying something about fighting like men, with their fists (even though the Monkey King is literally a monkey…) So that leads me to believe that he’s basically insulting the Monkey King for using a staff, in which case I would have gone with something a little more clear to underline the disparaging connotation with “stick”. ‘Cause in the original line, I simply assumed it was an ESL error.

The rest of the film was okay; most of the lines were well-written. One of the characters kept referring to herself in the third person, but it wasn’t exactly clear whether this was a speech impediment, or a humility thing. But towards the end was one insult that caught my ear:

3. “shut up, you orphan b*tch”
I get that it’s an insult, but the orphan part kinda elicits sympathy. It was said by a bad guy, so I guess it’s okay that she would view orphans as being “bad”, but I would have gone with something more like “mongrel b*tch.” Still communicates the idea of uncertain lineage (common with orphans), but more importantly, consistently insulting.

Overall, given the generally good quality of the English lines, I wasn’t sure if the awkward translations were meant to be some sort of nostalgic fanfare for those sinophiles who grew up in the age of awkward translations in the 60’s, but I felt that the audience of today would have been mature enough to handle a natural translation without being misled into thinking that it was actually taking place in Albion.

On the flip side, I also cringe whenever white actors are forced to pretend to be fluent in Mandarin because of the character they’re portraying (notably in Firefly, but in almost every spy show as well). I totally get that it arises from the disparity between the scriptwriters making up some fantastically polyglot spy and the actual linguistic skills of the actors, but in our current era of authenticity and talent, I feel that an allegedly multilingual character should be played by an actor who can convincingly rattle off those lines, or get a translator with a very similar voice. I mean, if we don’t have a problem with Disney hiring separate people to do the vocals and the speech parts of their animated characters, I don’t see why we should have a problem with getting “language” voice actors to dub the Chinese bits that white people have to pretend to be fluent in, in TV shows.

For those of you who happen to be English-Chinese bilingual (or even just capable), I strongly encourage you to watch Firefly, as subtitled by fans in China (or help yourself to a local bootleg copy — for educational purposes only, of course. I would never condone the distribution or purchase of illegal goods). They have the interesting task of reverse-engineering the Chinese gibberish that the actors end up uttering, and actually make it somewhat intelligible in their native Mandarin.

I’d love to hear about any lines/languages that you’ve noticed have been butchered in media. Youtube links always welcome. 🙂