TV and movie localization: when moose become koalas

How to turn a movie into a global blockbuster, and why translation is only the tip of the iceberg.

Wolf Warrior 2, The Wandering Earth, Operation Red Sea… ever heard of these movies? No? Well, they’re some of the highest-grossing movies in China – and were all released within the last three years.

The global film market is rapidly expanding and China making a huge contribution to this growth, bringing in USD 7.9 billion in 2017. Despite these astonishing figures, it can’t quite keep up with global powerhouse Netflix, which produced over 300 original titles in the same year.

While somewhat questionable dubbing into Asian languages has long been considered sufficient, studios are now preparing for a future where success isn’t just measured at the box offices between Los Angeles and Berlin, but across the entire world. And this is why they are investing heavily in localizing their movies. It’s a story in five acts:

1. Plot

When it comes to breaking through the cultural fourth wall, all stories are equal, but some are more equal than others. The Breakfast Club, an undisputed classic, is a super example of this as it strikingly depicts the everyday reality of American teenagers. However, Chinese teens might struggle to find things in common with the American high school students in this movie! Plots that achieve global success are usually oriented around the few universally recognized themes – good vs bad, humanity vs nature, forbidden love, or the classic hero’s journey. As a rule of thumb, dialog-driven plots such as comedies are harder to translate into other languages and cultures than action movies with lots of explosions and less content. Boom.

2. Cast

Once upon a time, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt were the easiest way to ensure a box office hit. At least in the western hemisphere. Fan Bingbing (范冰冰), Donnie Yen (甄子丹) and Jiang Wen (姜文) are China’s own movie superstars, who, if cast in a movie, play a major role in ensuring its success. A word of caution, though – if these superstars are cast merely as extras, the public’s reaction might not be as positive as you’d like, as demonstrated by X-Men: Days of Future Past. Fan Bingbing’s big role in fact consisted of just one line. In China, this phenomenon is called ‘hua ping’ (花瓶, or in English: just a pretty face) and is often used when talking about whitewashing.

3. Localizing individual scenes

Japanese children love broccoli! Or at least, they don’t hate eating it as much as they hate bell peppers, as seen in the Pixar movie Inside Out. In the world of animated films, it’s becoming increasingly common to produce several different versions of individual scenes to ensure that they appeal to the culture of each target market as much as possible. You can see one of the most famous examples of this in our cover image. In the movie Zootopia, different animals were chosen to portray the news anchor in different countries. The aim: the animal should convey a sense of trust and cheerfulness in every country.

The list of examples is long: from Garfield, who in Lithuania prefers kugelis to lasagna, to replacing Taco Bell with Pizza Hut in Demolition Man (1993) for the European market.

4. Language

Movies need more than just a translation. Rendering the text and subtitles correctly in another language doesn’t cut it. Cultural factors also need to be taken into account. After a fight scene in the American movie Kung Fu Panda, for example, the protagonist Po exclaims, “Wow, I think I just peed a little!” This sentence of course exists in Chinese, but it was translated as “This is too much!” – the original phrase would be an absolute no-no in China.

5. Don’t put your foot in it

As is the case for all global affairs, more localization means fewer blunders. Potential missteps lie around every corner – they’ve even tripped up James Bond. In the movie Die Another Day, one of Bond’s many lovers’ trysts took place in front of a Buddhist temple. In South Korea, where the scene was filmed, people weren’t won over by this romantic scene – they were appalled by it, and called for a James Bond boycott.

Cover image via Imgur

Source: MultiLingual.com

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