What makes YouTube so popular? It is the website's content, such as snippets from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, South Park, or any of the latest television shows from around the world.
Though TV networks have asked YouTube to remove them, users keep uploading more unauthorized video clips.
In China, some websites are doing much more than that. "Western executives must be very jealous of the copyright situation here," a Chinese Web 2.0 entrepreneur once told me. Posting copyrighted videos online? Who cares.
The result of this laissez-faire approach to unauthorized uploads is to popular culture-hungry Internet users what pirated disks was to Chinese cinephiles a decade ago.
Nowadays, go to a Chinese video-sharing site, type in the name of your favorite show, click on the search button, and voila! Every single episode of the show will pop up on your screen faster than the fairy godmother turned a pumpkin into a carriage for Cinderella.
Case in point: ouou.com. Here you can access new episodes of 24, Prison Break, Heroes or any other series, one day after they air in the United States.
What's more, there is no downloading (a process that belongs to the BitTorrent/KaZaA age), no commercial breaks to bother you every few minutes, and most importantly, no Babel-like situation where language or cultural misunderstanding makes the global village a pitfall of perils.
It is all thanks to the effort made by volunteer translation groups.
These are fans who prepare Chinese subtitles as soon as they get the video from the Internet. After Episode 1, Season 2 of Prison Break came out in August 2006, the first Chinese subtitled version was finished and uploaded in less than seven hours.
For shows that require in-depth knowledge of American culture, there are footnotes with the subtitles. For example, footnotes on Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip help Chinese audiences understand in-jokes about Hollywood history and American politicians.
Here's one secret for high-quality translation: embedded English subtitles for HDTV programs are recorded and sent to the translation groups for reference, kind of like a secret agent that Chinese couch potatoes have planted inside Hollywood.
The irony is, when official Chinese television stations present new imported hit shows, people rarely take notice, partly because of the low quality of translation, and partly because of the terrible dubbing. A year ago, when CCTV screened Desperate Housewives, the ratings were abysmally low. So low that Hollywood had better consider breaking into the Albanian market.
Volunteer translation not only happens in China. On YouTube's "Most Viewed" page, some Japanese cartoons come with English subtitles also the work of volunteers. Fortune magazine said that if the official versions of these Japanese anime are bought by American networks, grassroots translation will cease operation immediately.
That would be like guerrillas dispersing when the uniformed troops march in, wouldn't it?
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(China Daily 03/06/2007 page20)