All photos by Yuan Liyang

The Obsessive World of China's Amateur 'Sherlock' Subtitlers

“The government just doesn’t show a big interest in promoting the arts. Seems like we filled the gap.”

Jul 22 2015, 1:30pm

All photos by Yuan Liyang

It's hard to escape Benedict Cumberbatch's stare in 26-year-old Cassie's small, mildly shabby bedroom in the city of Wuhan, in central China. The Sherlock star dreamily gazes from the cover of a copy of TIME magazine. He looks upward, poignantly, from a 2013 calendar kept on Cassie's desk for aesthetic purposes. He stab-stares, arms folded, from a poster above her desk.

Cassie is more than your average "Cumberbitch." She's the leader of iSherlock, an amateur subtitling group comprising around 200 unpaid volunteers who dedicate their lives to translating the universe of the Sherlock TV show and its stars into Chinese for their 59,000 followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

"The Sherlock plots are intriguing and the heroes are attractive with charisma," Cassie told me. "I read the original books then the drama came out and I felt it connected with my life. The way the hero expresses his emotions is different to any others I have seen."

Last year relatively small Chinese amateur subtitling, or "fansubbing," groups such as iSherlock were very much in the shadow of more influential fansub organisations. But since Chinese authorities cranked up a huge crackdown on copyright infringement committed by large fansub groups they have increasingly become the norm.

Last year subtitling portal and YYeTs, a fansub group that operated like a massive company utilising thousands of unpaid subtitlers, was shut down by the National Copyright Administration. YYeTs had been targeted in 2013 and in that same year another group, Silu HD, was taken down. Eight of its leaders were arrested.

Cassie. Photo: Yuan Liyang

Large Chinese fansub groups such as these first geared up in the early 2000s, fuelled by appetites for foreign TV shows such as Friends and mainly set up by Chinese students studying abroad. With the central government seeing little value in art—President Xi Jinping recently suggested that Chinese art should primarily serve to promote socialism—and banning many popular shows from official channels, they became vital portals to foreign culture.

"The government prohibited a large number of dramas without giving us specific reasons, so instead it was the groups that served as the real ambassadors of spreading culture," Cassie said. "The government just doesn't show a big interest in promoting the arts. Seems like we filled the gap."

"I don't really feel like a leader because we are a volunteer group. We're democratic and listen to ideas and opinions from all members."

The government does maintain a tight grip on what it deems suitable to air, although it is easier to access TV and film with Chinese subtitles through mainstream media in China. Streaming sites like Iqiyi and Youku offer legal versions of shows such as Sherlock, meaning that the roles of fansub groups that hone in on one specific show or interest, such as iSherlock, have had to become far more than video access tools.

"I don't see a lot of bigger groups with millions of followers around now," said Beijing-based film industry worker Zack Lin, who investigated the Chinese public's interest in Sherlock and fansub groups for a thesis when studying at Warwick University in 2013. "People have gone elsewhere to get what they want because now they can," she added. "In the past you just didn't get these things on the big websites so [you] had to go underground. But for the series that aren't so popular there's still space for fansub groups."


iSherlock faces competition for the attention of China's 69 million Sherlock online video viewers in China (around 12 million UK viewers tuned in to BBC1 for the last series) from other fansub groups like AllForBC. But iSherlock has maintained a healthy following of hardcore fans of the show by providing a constant stream of Sherlock, Benedict and Martin Freeman for them.

They translate interviews, news articles and talk show appearances as well as Sherlock episodes, basically creating their own social network of like-minded fans. "It's rare to meet people in real life who you share interests with," says Cassie, who often meets up with iSherlock members in the flesh. "It makes me happy that I can do something for other fans because I have a good command of English. I've made a lot of friends through this."

All of iSherlock's volunteers work from home, with Cassie overseeing departments including transcription, news searching, post-production and design sectors. Most volunteers are university students and around one third are based overseas. But beyond that Cassie doesn't keep detailed profile of members.

Photo: Yuan Liyang

The second a new episode of Sherlock becomes available online in English the iSherlock team springs into action. After the source video is ripped translators are assigned a specific time segment to subtitle. They then hand over their work to proofreaders and post-production workers, who tie it all together with video converting programs such as Format Factory and Time Machine. It's a painstaking process but quality translation, not speed, is the priority. If an episode goes online at 5 AM the subtitlers try to get the iSherlock version out by 7 PM the same day.

English and mandarin are vastly different languages, meaning that translating between them is a deft skill that requires acute awareness of emotion and cultural background as well as language ability. As such, subtitling accuracy is always subjective. It's one of the reasons why many different versions of episodes are often available on both official and unofficial channels.

Photo: Yuan Liyang

Some users want simple translations, and become attached to groups that provide those. Others want to delve deeper.

"For example, in Sherlock there are a lot of cultural references most Chinese people won't know about and slang terms, so some groups would put explainers in as extra captions," Lin said. "Some subtitlers just want to be as close as possible to the original meaning. But another type of subtitler will translate it using Chinese slang, to simplify it and help people understand it."

"Sherlock is very popular here in China," said Cassie. "So although there are other Sherlock fansub groups people have different ideas and opinions about the same lines. Some subtitlers feel characters' emotions stronger than others. People can choose their favorite versions, but our first concern is the basic quality of the translation."


It's not easy to be accepted as an iSherlock volunteer, with those angling for a spot needing to pass a rigorous translation test administered online by a senior member. "It's strict," Cassie said. "Sherlock actors speak fast which is a real challenge. About half fail and half pass. For my test the character spoke very fast with a strong accent, so I was nervous and I had to check the meaning of some slang."

Cassie said she spends around one third of her waking hours working for iSherlock, which formed in 2012. "I definitely feel more pressure since becoming the leader last year, especially since we have an increasing amount of followers on Weibo," she said. "The former leader has high expectations of me. But I don't really feel like a leader because we are a volunteer group. We're democratic and listen to ideas and opinions from all members."

She agrees that groups like iSherlock have better long-term prospects than the heavily-targeted larger groups but, like many people in China, Cassie has a hazy understanding of copyright issues. She flits between statements like, "It's more or less infringement [when we reproduce a video] because the production crew made lots of effort and we don't have permission" and, "Most of the videos we translate are available in public cyberspace—it's hard to define whether it's copyright infringement." (It's not—reproducing a video you did not create, without permission, is copyright infringement.)

"I just hope we find a justified way to continue our work"

In China laws are often deliberately fuzzy and are only taken seriously if implementation is rigorous, and for years fansub groups were left alone to develop into juggernauts like YYeTs before the sudden smash-down.

"Subtitle groups used to be a grey area in China so if the government can do something to regulate it then it is good news," Cassie told me. "But it could do better work in terms of coordination. It should keep fans informed about the rules. It cannot all of a sudden have strict rules in place when there are already huge fan groups in China. They can't go so far overnight."

But they have, and if they do end up targeting smaller groups such as iSherlock Cassie said she would "just accept" a shut-down. But that's unlikely in the immediate future unless the group's follower count increases enough to be deemed a large copyright threat. And anyway, even if iSherlock was to stop producing subtitled episode videos, it has built up such a strong network of obsessive fans that it could easily continue in a new guise as a fan club sharing articles and bringing together fellow Cumber-heads.

"I just hope we find a justified way to continue our work," said Cassie. "Benedict is dedicated. When watching his performance you feel exactly what he wants to express. We hope we can keep on doing something to help the heroes of this drama."

With additional reporting by Cissy Young.