Last night, I had nothing to do and no classes this morning, so I popped in a pirated copy of There Will Be Blood. About halfway through, I decided to turn on the Chinese subtitles, since I’d seen the movie before anyway, but I was pretty surprised at what I found, and parts are pretty funny, so I thought I’d share it with everyone.

I’ll preface this by saying that this has been done before, by John at Sinosplice. He, however, reviewed Closer, a film with a Metacritic score that barely edges out The Wackness. The Wall Street Journal called it “an airless, ultimately joyless drama.”

There Will Be Blood, in contrast, was universally lauded. It won multiple Oscars and had been out on DVD for quite a while when I picked up this pirated copy. I was curious; would the translators invest more time (and/or get someone who actually spoke English) for this film? The answer: a resounding “No.”

For your enjoyment, I’ve translated four crucial scenes from the film, with the original dialogue in bold and then the subtitle translation after it in italics. These scenes are all extremely important to understanding the main character of the film (Daniel Plainview), so I thought they were especially good choices for illustrating this epic subtitle translation fail. They are by no means the only scenes with mistakes, though.

If you’re pressed for time, skip to the Scene 3; that’s where it really gets crazy.



The preacher ELI comes to confront DANIEL about DANIEL‘s promises to the church shortly after DANIEL’S SON has been injured in an oil-drilling accident and lost his hearing.

ELI: When do we get our money, Daniel?
Subtitle: When do we get our money, Daniel?

[DANIEL slaps ELI]

DANIEL: Aren’t you a healer and a vessel for the Holy Spirit? When are you coming over to make my son hear again? Can’t you do that?
Subtitle: Do you mean to say you didn’t hear? Isn’t your specialty the spirit? What did you come here for? Is it possible that you can’t do anything?

ELI: If you had let me bless the well, this wouldn’t have–
Subtitle: You really are a bastard.

[DANIEL slaps ELI again]

ELI: You shouldn’t have done that, Daniel.
Subtitle: You shouldn’t have done that.

ELI: [Crawling away] You owe the church of the Third Revelation $5,000. That was the arrangement that we made.
Subtitle: You bastard. I didn’t do anything. It wasn’t me who did it.

So much for plot points!


A man named HENRY has shown up, claiming to be DANIEL‘s half-brother.

DANIEL: Where are you coming from?
Subtitle: Where did you come from?

HENRY: From New Mexico.
Subtitle: From Mexico.

DANIEL: Yes, I know. From where?
Subtitle: Yes, I know. From where?

HENRY: Silver City, I’ve been there for two years. I was trying drilling of my own for years, getting leases in Texas, Louisiana…
Subtitle: I’ve been there for two years. I was leading the vagrant life for many years, then I came here.

DANIEL: Anything that produced…?
Subtitle: And you had something?

HENRY: No, not like your success, no.
Subtitle: No, I’m not as successful as you.


DANIEL: Are you an angry man, Henry? Are you envious, do you get envious?
Subtitle: Are you an angry man, Henry? Are you envious? Do you envy me?

HENRY: I don’t think so, no.
Subtitle: I don’t think so, no.

DANIEL: I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.
Subtitle: I’m competing with myself. I won’t let anyone else succeed. I hate most people.

HENRY: That part of me is gone. Working and not succeeding, all my failures have left me…I just don’t care.
Subtitle: Yes, many people are gone now. Work and success, all I have heard are my own failures. I don’t care.

DANIEL: Well, if it’s in me it’s in you. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.
Subtitle: Whatever’s in me is in you. The people I find, I have nothing in common with them. I want to earn enough money to get away from everyone.

HENRY: What will you do about your boy?
Subtitle: So, what about your son?

DANIEL: I don’t know. Maybe it will change. Does your sound come back to you, I don’t know…maybe no one knows. A doctor might not know that…
Subtitle: I don’t know. Maybe it will change. I don’t know, maybe it will influence him deeply. Maybe no one knows, maybe only heaven knows.

HENRY: Where’s his mother?
Subtitle: Where’s his mother?

DANIEL: I don’t want to talk about those things. I see the worst in people, Henry. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built up my hatreds over the years, little by little.
Subtitle: I don’t want to talk about those things. I see the worst things, Henry. I don’t want to see those things. They have already become history, over the years I will gradually forget.

DANIEL: Having you here gives me a second breath. I can’t keep doing this on my own, with these…people.
Subtitle: I want to find a breath of fresh air. I can’t keep going on alone like this. If things stay like this, people…


This is where our friend the subtitle translator really starts to lose his grip on what the hell is going on. DANIEL has a gun to HENRY‘s head, doubting that he is really who he claims to be.

DANIEL: What was the name of the farm next to the Hill House?
Subtitle: I want to give the house I will grow old in a name.

HENRY: I can’t remember.
Subtitle: Yes, I don’t remember you.

DANIEL: Who are you?
Subtitle: [No subtitle]

HENRY: I’ll leave, Daniel.
Subtitle: Are you Daniel?

DANIEL: Who are you?
Subtitle: Who are you?

HENRY: I’m no one. Just let me get up and go.
Subtitle: I’m no one, just an unimportant person.

DANIEL: Do I have a brother?
Subtitle: You are my brother.

HENRY: I met a man in King City who said he was your brother. We were friends for months, working in King City. And he wanted to make his way to you, Daniel. He didn’t have any money. He died of tuberculosis. He wasn’t harmed, wasn’t killed, nothing bad…but he told me about you, and I just took his story. Used his diary. Daniel, Daniel, I’m your friend, I’m not trying to hurt you. Just survive. No!
Subtitle: In a dream, I came to a Crime City; I became a criminal. There, there were no friends or relatives, but there were many laborers working in the city. It seems like I was there waiting for somebody. Saying it, I’m sure you won’t believe me. Later, I left that capital of crime hurriedly because I didn’t want to see people die. The things you just said to me; I can only say this is still a beginning. Especially as far as you’re concerned. Daniel, we’re friends, true-hearted friends, isn’t that right? Yes. I want to sleep. No!

Ah yes, a dream about Crime City! That’s got about the same impact as the admission that a character is impersonating someone’s dead brother for financial gain. Well done, translator!


Near the end of the film, ELI shows up at DANIEL‘s house, trying to get him to invest in some new property he wasn’t able to purchase when he originally started drilling years earlier.

DANIEL: I’d be happy to work with you. But there is one condition for this work. I’d like you to tell me that you are a false prophet. I’d like you to tell me that you are and have been a false prophet, and that God is a superstition.
Subtitle: I like to hear you speak. You can continue your elegant exposition. It is like hearing heavenly bells. To tell you the truth, I don’t like religion, but I don’t oppose God.

ELI: But that’s a lie, it’s a lie, I cannot say it.
Subtitle: But that’s a lie. I can only say that that is truly a lie.

[After the business details are ironed out]

ELI: I am a false prophet and God is a superstition, if that’s what you believe then I will say it.
Subtitle: Benevolent sir, please help, repair our church.

DANIEL: Say it like you mean it. Say it like it’s your sermon.
Subtitle: Why are you speaking so softly? Say it using that loud and clear voice of yours.

[…DANIEL eggs on ELI until ELI is screaming]

ELI: I am a false prophet and God is a superstition!
Subtitle: In the name of God I am endlessly grateful if Daniel and I can help each other.

DANIEL: Those areas have been drilled. Those areas have been drilled.
Subtitle: You spoke without emotion. It doesn’t seem like truthful words.

ELI: [mumbles]
Subtitle: Oh, yes?

DANIEL: Yes, it’s uh, it’s called drainage, Eli. I own everything around it so of course I get what’s underneath it.
Subtitle: Yes, child. I would never plan, I have given a lot.

As you can see, anyone watching the movie and relying on the Chinese subtitles would, at best, be really confused. It’s a shame they don’t get people who know what they’re doing to write the subtitles, especially for movies as great as this one. Anyway, those of you with Chinese girlfriends, keep an eye on the subtitles when you’re watching movies together, because the two of you might not be watching the same movie!


  1. That’s a very detailed breakdown of how half-arsed these subtitles can sometimes be. I’ve long noticed this, and particularly that the easy pieces of speech get translated well, but that more complex sentences (which carry most of the plot, inevitably) are horribly mangled. I guess that the translator is him/herself confused, and just guesses. After all, the pirates are not gonna check the integrity of the translation!

  2. Ah yes (great blog post by the way) the lost in translation thing. The thing is, when someone says they did not like (or really liked) a western movie it often means they did not, in fact, get what the movie was actually about.

    On an interesting side note you can watch movies on dubbed into Shanghaihua, Jinanhuan or any “hua” you want.
    I will quote a scene from Forest Gump – the scene when no one will sit with him on the bus as a kid.
    Many boys and girls refuse Forest a seat by saying…
    “I have hepatitis”
    Girl – you can sit here I don’t have hepatitis.
    Forest – thanks.
    Girl – where are you going?
    Forest – I have to go get vacinated i think I have rabies.
    Girl – Why?
    Forest – I was bitten by a stray dog.

    (the thing is, I am totally not joking that’s what they said)

    I will add it was a spoof… a damn fine one too.
    At least I’m thinking it was a spoof haha.
    Another quote ” Life is like a baked potato(kou di gua) – you never know what color it is in the middle.
    If any one is interested in the link to the movie. I’ll post it. I’ll have to search for it though.

  3. Hey Charlie, welcome to Lost Laowai and awesome inaugural post. My wife, who is Chinese, now has solid enough English to let me know if the subtitles are truly horrible, mildly horrible or decent. However, it used to be that she would just sit patiently trying to figure out the plot, assuming the subtitles were right and that foreign films were just weird – which, admittedly, some that I watch are.

    What I find hilarious is when we get part way through a movie and she says “these subtitles aren’t making any sense.” and I switch to the English and the subtitles are for a completely different movie.

    On a lot of pirated films and TV shows you’ll actually get some sort of signature (and sometimes contact information) for the subtitler. I’d be curious to contact them and talk to them about their method.

  4. Ha, you know, that’s a good point…next time I see one of those, I’m going to contact them and see if I can arrange an interview; that could be hilarious.

    Edit: Yup, if anyone sees one of those email addresses on something they’re watching, and drop it here or send me an email with it, along with the title of whatever you were watching. I’d like to interview of them, I think it could be interesting.

  5. Pingback: Sun Zoo’s American Expatriate » There Will Be…What?

  6. I watched the ‘curious case of benjamin button’ last night. One particularly nice mistranslation was where the Captain said to Ben “you mean you’ve never been with a women?” – the translation was “你不知道你是个女人吗?”. Which means “you mean you didn’t know you are a women”, hehehe…

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