Voices in the dark

(Shanghai Star) | Aug 21, 2014

Until recently, many foreign movies in China were dubbed into Mandarin, but with a growing number of cinema-goers understanding English, the industry is in decline. 

Before the economy opened up in the 1980s, one of the ways Chinese people could learn about the outside world was by watching foreign films dubbed into Mandarin. Although the movies were in black and white, the memories are colorful, thanks in part to the expressive talents of the Chinese voice actors.

For today’s cinephiles accustomed to watching films with subtitles, it’s difficult to imagine that voicing a part in a foreign fi lm was once a choice occupation for a talented voice actor.

“In the early dubbed films, the performances of the voice actors were excellent, and sometimes even better than the original roles. I can even remember some of the classic lines in movies such as Sissi and Waterloo Bridge,” says Wang Xuan, a retired engineer and movie lover.


Sadly, dubbing is losing its appeal to young Chinese moviegoers, because most of them, especially those in fi rst-tier cities, understand English, and they prefer to watch the fi lm in the language in which it was made.

In cities like Shanghai and Beijing, only slightly more than 10 percent of viewers would prefer to watch a foreign movie dubbed in Chinese.

This increasing preference poses a threat to the once renowned Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio, which in its heyday was responsible for dubbing large numbers of fi lms shown on the Chinese mainland.

Liu Feng, deputy manager of the studio, remains optimistic despite the trend, and believes there are still plenty of opportunities for the voice-over industry in China.

“In 2006, voice dubbing regained its popularity in films such as the Da Vinci Code and Garfield,” he says.

According to Liu, China still has a vast number of audiences in rural and less-developed areas who would prefer to watch a film that has been dubbed. He says between 60 and 80 percent of people in second- and third-tier cities, and an even higher percentage in other areas, prefer dubbed movies because of language barriers and an unwillingness to read subtitles.

The country’s exploding box-office sales are also encouraging.

Official box-office takings reached21.8 billion yuan ($ 3.55 billion) inthe Chinese mainland market in 2013 and that number is expected to exceed 29 billion yuan this year.

“China’s accelerating urbanization means smaller cities will generate more frequent cinema-goers, and we will exploit this potential with our dubbed films.”

Liu dismisses the notion that dubbing is an outdated post-production process, pointing out that it is still popular in countries such as France, Italy, Turkey, Japan and South Korea.

In Japan, many people will watch an animated movie simply because they like a particular voice actor. Liu says his studio hopes to emulate this in China one day.

The Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio currently does work for about 30 foreign films shown in cinemas each year, as well as about 100 foreign movies shown on Chinese television.


Film dubbing in Shanghai dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when major movie theaters in the city were equipped with special simultaneous- translation facilities. A female voice would translate the foreign fi lm into Chinese as it was screened and the audience could listen to the translation with ear-plugs provided.

There were quite a few people in Shanghai at that time who specialized in this art and Liu says this period was the start of the dubbed over film in China.

A film translation team was established in November 1949 in a building located at the crossing of Jiangxi Road and Fuzhou Road. The first film translated was Russia’s Syn Polka in June 1950. The translation team recruited the first batch of voice actors in September 1950, and 16 Russian movies were dubbed between 1950 and 1951.

The Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio was officially founded in April 1957, and expanded its work to the films from countries including Italy, Britain, Spain, France, Greece, Japan and the United States.

Early voice actors developed a large number of fans among Chinese audiences. Famous dubbed works included Jane Eyre, Zorro, La Grande Vadrouille, and Manhunt.

In 1977, the studio moved to Yongjia Road. The improved working environment and facilities ushered the studio into its golden era throughout the following decade.

In the eyes of Chinese audiences, films dubbed by the studio were of the best quality in China, acting as a yardstick by which to rate all other voice dubbing.


Liu says an encouraging change that may be positive for the dubbing industry is ownership reform, which will benefit some State-owned enterprises, such as his studio.

According to the latest policy unveiled by the municipal government, private investors are welcomed to participate in State-owned enterprises.

“This is obviously an opportunity for the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio, and we will work on a plan for our future development and turn that into reality in the coming years,” Liu says.

According to Liu, under a mixed ownership, the studio will be able to better respond to market demands to realize voice acting and its chain industries’ real value.

This is also good news for voice actors, who will be able to command higher salaries if they prove to have cache in the marketplace.

According to Liu, the studio dubbing a foreign movie can only make 50,000 yuan, which is far below the market standard.

“In a market-oriented situation, the production should generate at least ten times more than that figure,” says Liu.

In more than six decades, the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio has dubbed over 1,600 foreign movies from 49 countries. Liu says dubbing films is not the only work his studio can do.

China is still developing the audio book industry but Liu already sees great potential in this market. He is thinking of working with car manufacturers so that audio books can become part of the fixed installations in cars, even before they are sold, and they can follow up with paid downloads of a library of audiobooks.


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