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Crafting Shang-Chi’s subtitles was a ‘big learning experience,’ says director

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Whether Shang-Chi’s scenes were in English or Mandarin was all about the characters

Simu Li squares up as the title character of Marvel’s Shang-Chi. Image: Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a bilingual movie, making it an outlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Listing the characters in the movie who aren’t fluent in multiple languages would be easier than listing the ones who are, because writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton had no hesitation in depicting the heroes of Shang-Chi speaking in whatever language best fit the scene — even if it meant a lot of subtitles.

“Everything just came from a logical decision that was character-based,” he told Polygon. “The idea is that [Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing’s father, Wenwu] can speak any language he wants, and he teaches his kids multiple languages. So we have scenes that imply that; that they are able to switch between English and Chinese.”

And how to decide which pivotal moments in the movie would be en English, and which in Mandarin?

“It was always a discussion, ‘What makes the most sense to these characters? When would they be speaking one language and when would they be speaking another?’ and we tried to stick to those rules throughout the movie.”

Shang-Chi was something of a crash course in what the director called “the art of subtitling” — and multilingual viewers have pointed out the poetry in the film’s languages that didn’t make it to the English text on the screen. Cretton credits the production’s translator and Mandarin dialect coach, Nova Zheng, for her work.

“There is no direct translation between any two languages,” Cretton told Polygon. “There is an art to what we put on screen in English. The best translation — sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s slightly different to what the Chinese words are saying. That was a big learning experience for me. I just tried to come at everything with as much respect and curiosity as possible. I feel really happy to have been surrounded by some very smart people who helped make sure that that was on screen as the right thing.”

Shang-Chi is available in theaters now, and Disney has said it plans to release the film on its Disney Plus streaming service 45 days after Sept. 3, the film’s theatrical release date. You can read more about this latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how the character came to be right here.