SHANGHAI For the past year and a half, said Ding Chengtai, a recent university graduate, his friends have wondered why he seems to have disappeared.
Ding, a 23-year-old Internet technology expert for a large Chinese bank, chuckled at the thought. He keeps himself in virtual seclusion during his off hours, consumed with American television programs like "Lost," "C.S.I." and "Close to Home."
He is no ordinary fan, though: none of the shows he watches can be seen on Chinese television. Instead, he spends night after night translating subtitles for current sitcoms and dramas for a mushrooming audience of Chinese viewers who download them from the Internet free through services like BitTorrent.
What is most remarkable about the effort, which involves dozens of translators working in teams all over China, is that it is entirely voluntary. Ding's group, which goes by the name Fengruan, is locked in fierce competition with a handful of similar outfits that share the same ambition: making American popular culture available in near-real time free to Chinese audiences, dodging Chinese censors and American copyright lawyers.
"We've set a goal of producing 40 TV shows a week, which basically means all of the shows produced by Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC," said Ding, fairly bubbling over the project. "What this means is that when the Americans broadcast shows, we will translate them. Our speed surpasses all the other groups in China, and our goal is to be the best American transcription service in the world."
Locked as he is in a sometimes nasty competition with local rivals, Ding seemed blind to the fact that his group may have already attained its proclaimed goal. Although there are clubs in other countries that watch American television programs with translated subtitles online, the systematic effort of groups like Fengruan to reproduce American prime-time entertainment free of charge and in its entirety for a booming audience of Chinese fans is unique.
To a person, the translators say they are willing to devote long hours to this effort out of a love for American popular culture. Many, including Ding, say they learned English by obsessively watching American movies and television programs. And others say they pick up useful knowledge about everything from changing fashion and mores to medical science.
"It provides cultural background relating to every aspect of our lives: politics, history and human culture," Ding said. "These are the things that make American TV special. When I first started watching 'Friends,' I found the show was full of information about American history, and showed how America had rapidly developed. It's more interesting than textbooks or other ways of learning."
On an Internet forum about the downloaded television shows, a poster who used the name Plum Blossom put it another way. "After watching these shows for some time, I felt the attitudes of some of the characters were beginning to influence me," the poster wrote. "It's hard to describe, but I think I learned a way of life from some of them. They are good at simplifying complex problems, which I think has something to do with American culture."
Rendering the slang of American culture into Chinese is a special challenge. In an episode of "Sex and the City," the line "I thought you two would hit it off" became "I thought you two would generate electricity together." From "Prison Break," the warning "Preparation can only take you so far" turned into: "People can only try to do things. It's God's will that ensures success."
Whatever the programs say about American culture, translation efforts like these have received a boost from conditions particular to China. This country combines a fast-growing population of more than 123 million Internet users, most with access to broadband service, with a stultifying television culture. The state-owned national network, CCTV, has 16 broadcast channels, but they vary little in their mixture of endless historical dramas, tepid soap operas and copycat game shows.
In an e-mail interview, a fan of American television shows who goes by the name of Happyidea and who declined to give his real name, gave this assessment of the Chinese programming: "Our own actors are not bad. Those responsible for making Chinese TV shows pathetic are the directors, screenwriters, editors and the people doing the lighting, music, special effects and makeup. There are bits of poor quality in every aspect, and it adds up to total trash."
A longstanding practice of strict censorship that affects all Chinese media, and covers not only politics, but sexuality, violence and other subjects that form the grist of American entertainment, also drives audiences toward alternatives like downloadable television shows. And there are sharp limits on the number of American programs and Hollywood movies that can be broadcast or screened in theaters here.
China imported only 16 American films last year, out of a total of 20 foreign movies. American programs are similarly scarce on Chinese television. "CCTV-8 aired 'Desperate Housewives' and we made a point of watching it," said Jin Bo, 25, an English teacher and member of the YDY translation group, a leading rival to Fengruan. "I thought, Oh my God, the dubbing, the translation, why is it all so bad? It lost what made the original show wonderful, and the ratings were extremely low."
As examples of what went wrong with the CCTV-8 broadcast, Jin said: "They would start the show at 10 p.m. and run three episodes back to back. Moreover, to adapt the program to fit the so-called situation of our country, words were eliminated or had their meanings altered. For example, the scene where Andrew reveals his homosexuality was cut."
The rival TV translation groups, by contrast, take great pride in their work, basing their translations on closed-caption transcripts in English that, along with the programs themselves, are typically captured on computers by collaborators in the United States and sent to China via the Internet.
Strict hierarchies exist in each of the translation groups, with translators being promoted not simply for speed, which is vital, but judged on their faithfulness to the original material as well.
Official efforts to control both the market for and content of popular culture have long had the effect of encouraging piracy here. Cheap DVD copies of newly released American movies have been sold on street corners throughout China for years. Recent attempts to crack down on these sales, at the insistence of the United States, have coincided with the boom in television and movie downloading, which could eventually make DVD piracy obsolete.
Representatives of American television networks said they were counting on new Chinese legislation to stop the downloading and translation of their programming.
"We are aware that because of their popularity several Fox programs are particular targets of theft and unauthorized broadcast in territories around the world," Teri Everett, a Fox spokeswoman, said by e-mail. "We work diligently, hand in hand with the Motion Picture Association of America to deal with these situations. It's an ongoing effort, and one that will be greatly aided in China once the Chinese Internet regulations are finalized, which will clarify a number of issues relating to the enforcement of content providers' right on the Internet."
Duan Yuping, an official with the National Copyright Administration, said China was following "international efforts" in regard to BitTorrent and other downloading services.
They are not "yet included in the regulations," he said, "because this is an area where technologies change very fast. So far we don't have a related law, and we haven't received any complaints by American companies."
Members of the translation groups are aware that their efforts might violate copyright laws in other countries, but most view it as a mere technicality because they charge nothing for their efforts and make no profits, adhering to Chinese law.
"Essentially what we are doing is a violation, but since China hasn't proposed a law to regulate this yet, we're still doing it," Ding said. "Maybe in the future, the state will make such a law. If they do, our forum won't be able to survive."
(Source: International Herald Tribune ,By Howard W. French The New York Times/CRIENGLISH.COM)