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The Silver Winged Killer: “Blade Runner” in China

Spoilers?: Of course, we’re talking about Blade Runner

The Silver Winged Killer (or The Silver Wing Killer) is the Chinese name for Ridley Scott’s futuristic neo-noir Blade Runner where the measure of eye movements holds the key for a replicant continuing living or being retired. The kind of retirement you’re not looking forward to. Anyhow, how come the Chinese name is completely unrelated to the English title? First we should take a look at the English title which itself is completely different to the title of the book which the film is based on. Philip K Dicks book Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheeps is the book which the Blade Runner universe is freely based on. When screenplay-writer Hampton Fancher, Ridley Scott and producer Michael Deeley had engaged the project they found that writer William S Burroughs title for his film adaptation of Alan E. Nourse’s novel Blade Runner was a suitable title for their project. So, the rights for the name Blade Runner was therefore acquired. The title was originally a slang for a character in the book Blade Runner who made his living by smuggling scalpels, among other things, for black market surgery (therefore Blade Runner). The hidden connection between Nourse’s novel and Ridley Scotts film? None, it seems, other than that the name sounded way more edgy for Deckards occupation than the word detective did.

With this in mind we still haven’t come any closer to understanding the Chinese translation of the title. If we take a closer look on the Chinese title we can see that the first two characters in the title is the character 银/yín and 翼/yì where the first character means “silver” and the second character means “wing”. Well, actually, both characters have multiple meanings but these two meanings are the most common ones. Some Chinese netizens have suggested that the words “silver wing” might be a poetic way of referring to “blade”. And I don’t mind a translator being poetic or creative when performing her work but I don’t really see how this creative way of translating is somehow adding another subtlety to the title. Somehow the Chinese title might makes a little more sense when we put into context with the latest movie Blade Runner 2049 where replicant manufacturer Wallace refers to his replicants as “angels”. But then again I doubt that being clairvoyant was a common trait among translators. The last two characters in the title are 杀/shā and 手/shǒu which translates into “killer”.

The Silver Winged Killer translation gives rise to a bunch of contextual references which can be discussed in eternity. Is “silver” an allegory for robots when they’re not completely anthropomorphized or is “silver wing” a reference to the replicants as a new political force (as opposed to right-winged (右翼) and left-winged (左翼). One might think that they would actually make the title more direct and allude to some element in the film which can be easily compiled into a title name. I remember when Inception premiered in 2010 and the name for the movie in Chinese was 奠基/diànjī which means “to lay a foundation” or simply “inception”. Somewhere down the line the name was changed. Maybe because the name had to much connection with a communist vocabulary (thinking about the tv-series Founders (奠基者)) or simply because the title wasn’t good enough. The title was later changed to 《盗梦空间》 which literally means “Dream Thieves”. A corny title in English but very revealing about a key concept in the film.

Since the reformation of Chinese market regulations during the early 80s the import of foreign films have slowly but surely increased. This has probably also led to a standardization of how one should translate foreign film titles. When Blade Runner made its way to the silver screen in 1982 it had already received financial backing from the Shaw Brothers and most probably the film also premiered first in Hong Kong or Taiwan and then later made its way to Mainland China via pirated copies on VHS. So, the Chinese title has surely first been translated somewhere else than in Mainland China which opens up for lost meaning when the film finally came there.

Blade Runner actually had two different titles before “The Silver Winged Killer” was selected as the official title. In one early instance the film was simply called 《2020年》 where the Chinese character in the title means “year”. But even this title is confusing since the year which Blade Runner takes place is 2019 and not 2020.

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The other working title was 《边缘人》 which is actually a beautiful title and also quite profound because the title refers to the “marginal man theory” which explains a person whose identity is suspended between two different groups. If you have seen Blade Runner you’ll know that the meaning of this title is a perfect description of the situation Deckard is in. The whole conundrum of Deckards existence and his relationship with Rachel makes him a perfect candidate for the marginal man theory.

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In the end I guess I have to be honest with myself and admit that there isn’t any obvious answer to why Blade Runner was translated into “The Silver Winged Kill”. It lead to some speculation about the how and why of the translation of foreign titles in to Chinese but still far from knowing the truth. The process of translating titles or keywords within films in China is most probably a consistent and serious process seeing that some words are more sensitive than others. Maggie Greene, assistant professor of history at Montana State University, made a blog post about this shortly after she had written about the shanzhai comic version of Star Wars. What she found interesting was the translation of “rebels” into Chinese but also how it was actually possible for a comic with the “rebel faction fighting great empire” story to pass the censors in the early 80s.

The Chinese film market being the second largest in the world probably makes a lot of tentpole film producers nervous when it comes to investing in films that can contain subversive plots. If the three-finger salute in Hunger Games series can manifest itself as a symbol of resistance against oppression during the Occupy Central movement (and also in Thailand during the same time) then alternate readings of future films is very much possible. And I must confess that I can’t help to giggle when I think about the possibility that the upcoming Avatar sequels becomes a symbol for something like climate change or stopping violence against dissident voices.

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