There was a palpable dull thud of disappointment that accompanied the return of the imperial entourage of Zhen Huan to her homeland.
It followed a couple years of hushed excitement as Chinese fans were fed tidbits about their proud concubine who was supposed to conquer the high ground of the North American market.
Zhen Huan is, of course, the title character of The Legend of Zhen Huan, a 2011 television series that swept China off its feet and later took other Asian countries by storm.
Two years ago, it was reported that HBO, a premium cable service headquartered in the United States, was going to air it in North America after some modification. Now, a condensed version that provides English subtitles but no dubbing has finally been made available on Netflix for online streaming.
This version, highly anticipated as a milestone in China's cultural foray overseas, has been widely panned by its home audience.
Retitled Empresses in the Palace, the American version has been shortened from its original 76 episodes at 45 minutes each, to six 90-minute episodes. The quick pacing threw off many native viewers, who are accustomed to a more leisurely daytime-soap-style narrative rhythm. (Chinese TV stations would run two or three episodes every day.)
美版《甄嬛传》从原来的76集，每集45分钟的长度精简为6集，每集90分钟，剧名改为Empresses in the Palace。每集过快的节奏令美国观众很是不满，因为他们习惯了更加轻松的日间肥皂剧式的叙述节奏。（中国的电视台每天播2-3集）
I did not finish the full-length version and found the truncated one not difficult to follow. What's lost, I believe, are the interesting setups and pauses that illuminate the Chinese art of storytelling. Much of the plot is still there. It is the flavor that was sacrificed.
The American edition uses the framework of the Empress Dowager in her senior years reminiscing at the beginning and the end of each episode, hinting at what's to come and recapping the key points. This device, not used in the original, is culturally understandable but artistically mediocre.
What puzzles me is the two new songs for the opening and end credits. They were written in English, but sung by Chinese with an uncomfortable accent. They were obviously designed to appeal to an English-speaking base, but do not jibe with the Chinese dialogue.
Speaking of the dialogue, the English translation, picked apart by some Chinese, is too literal for my taste. I can imagine a typical American hit by a flurry of royal ranks, addresses and greetings, even multiple names and titles for the same person. The first half hour must be a swamp to wade through, very much like my experience of getting through a Tolstoy tome with its endless inflections of names transliterated into lengthy Chinese.
I see the choice of verbatim translation as an effort for conveying exotica. It is fairly competent, with no error that I could detect, but fails to rise above words or capture the essence of the language.
A cultural product usually crosses over to a foreign territory first by an emphasis on the commonalities. But whether inside or outside China, the temptation to sell it for the differences is just too great. Sure, the sumptuous sets and costumes are a big attraction, but the narrative technique has become-how shall I put it?-a bit anglicized, which is necessary for cultural export. Judging by the responses, this legend, which, contrary to the claim of the English trailer, is totally fictitious, has departed from China but not yet landed on American shores.