In August 2017, about an hour after the season finale of Game of Thrones aired on HBO, a team of Chinese fans gathered online.
It was 10 am in China, and for the next six hours they had a job to do: translate the show’s dialogue into Chinese based on the original episode and English subtitles.
The team’s members are scattered across different cities, from Beijing to Pittsburgh, but they work together on a cloud-based text editor called Shimo Docs. Six of them do the translating, three proofread, and a team leader does the final check.
By 4 pm local time, the subtitles—in simplified Chinese characters—were ready to publish on one of China’s biggest subtitle-sharing websites, SubHD, where the subtitles are called “cooked meat” (as opposed to unsubtitled “raw meat”).
Game of Thrones has become a huge hit in China. Even the country’s president, Xi Jinping, professes to be a fan of the show, squeezing in specially condensed versions of episodes into his busy schedule, according to some sources.
The show is officially streamed on Tencent, HBO’s exclusive online partner in China, but people who don’t want to wait for an episode—or pay for it—can download fan-translated versions through video-sharing websites.
The practice is illegal, but it still continues despite recent crackdowns by authorities.
The people who translate subtitles do not get paid for the service. Rather, they do it out of love for the show.
The practice is called fansubbing, and there are many groups in China that volunteer to translate all sorts of shows and movies.
Achilles Chen, one of the Game of Thrones team’s two leaders, says it was A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin books on which the series is based, that first brought them together in 2011.
“We are all normal people with our own jobs and lives. We do it for free.”
“We were very excited that a television series had been produced based on the books,” Chen recalls. “But we found that many of the Chinese subtitles didn’t work so well, mainly because the translators hadn’t read the books.”
Chen wasn’t the only one disappointed with the subtitles. Qu Chang, who was one of the Chinese translators of Martin’s first five books, had also begun translating the show’s dialogue for fans.
But Qu was doing the translations on his own time, and it was hard to keep up. That’s when other fans, including Chen, joined in.
According to Chen, the earlier seasons were easier to translate because they were closer to the novels.
But as the show wore on, the translations became harder, and they had to grow the team from four to six.
The work is laborious. Every episode contains 400 to 700 lines, depending on the length of fight scenes. Chen has seen many volunteers of different backgrounds come and go over the years.
“We are all normal people with our own jobs and lives,” he says. “We do it for free.”
But with the series finally concluded, the team can look forward to some rest.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.