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star struck

Subtitle subtleties

Natsuko Toda has been writing subtitles for 35 years, and still finds them a challenge

Chris Betros

As a little girl watching Hollywood movies in postwar Japan, Natsuko Toda never dreamed that one day she would be Japan’s most sought-after translator to make subtitles for them, or that she would be called upon to interpret for the stars during their junkets to Japan. Toda has been making subtitles for foreign films since 1970 and currently does around 40 films a year.

Toda was born in Fukuoka, where her father worked for a bank. He died during World War II, so she and her mother moved to Tokyo. At that time, foreign films were banned, but after the war, a generation had their eyes opened to the magic of the movies. “The first movies I saw were Chaplin’s Gold Rush and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine,” recalls Toda. “I kept going to the movies and that motivated my interest in English. When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a subtitle translator because it connected two of my favorite things—movies and English.”

Doing subtitles is a lot tougher than most people think. “You get a finished film, accompanied by a copy, and are given one week to 10 days to work on it. The distributors always hurry us as they want to show the subtitled version to the exhibitors and book better theaters,” Toda explains. But because of a recent rush to open in Japan at the same time as in the US, the “final” versions do not arrive until the very last moment. “In that case, we get preliminary versions on video,” Toda says. “Sometimes, for security reasons, the pictures are blacked out so we cannot see what is happening, or who is talking to whom! Can you imagine how difficult that makes our work?”

The most difficult genre to make subtitles for is comedy, she says. “Jokes never translate well. Try a typical Woody Allen joke on a Japanese audience. You have to explain why it is funny, and in doing so, it loses its impact. With a funny story that has a punchline, you just cannot invent a different story in Japanese for subtitles. It looks forced and false, and turns the audience off.” There are other challenges, too. The maximum number of characters per scene is typically 20. Once, names of cities like San Francisco and New York could be written with just two kanji, but nowadays the government restricts the number of kanji that can be used. “Unfortunately, many younger Japanese are getting weaker at reading kanji; that’s why we use a lot of katakana,” Toda says. Despite such restrictions, some people still criticize the quality of subtitles. “Of course, we make mistakes,” Toda admits. “But critics do not realize we have to be liberal. The translation gets too long to read while the dialogue is spoken. Subtitles would disappear in mid-sentence.”

Basically a shy person, Toda has had to adjust to being in the limelight as an interpreter for all the big stars, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and three generations of Fondas. “What kept me at it were those extraordinary opportunities where I could meet all those interesting people and learn about movies,” she says. Strange as it may seem, Toda can watch other movies and switch off her mental subtitle mode—to a point. “I am pretty relaxed when I am not responsible for the translation, although I do notice very good and very bad subtitles sometimes.”


 

Q&A


Tak Norris

Real estate pro knows his way around Tokyo

Chris Betros

If you’re looking for an office or residence to lease, Takashi (Tak) Norris is the guy to see. As president of Platinum, he’ll help you with anything to do with real estate.

Where are you from?
I was born in New York City to a Japanese mom and American father.

When did you start Platinum?
In December 2000. It was a risk, but you only live once.

What is Platinum’s strong point?
A lot of foreigners who come to Japan have a hard time finding the right property, communicating and negotiating what they want. My niche is being able to bridge that gap.

What are the hottest areas in Tokyo now?
The Aoyama-Omotesando area. A close second is Ginza.

What do you think of the newly developed areas?
I like them. Japan is so jam-packed. New development can provide for more safety and allows for a concentration of people to come to one area in an organized fashion.

Could you put me a Roppongi Hills penthouse?
If you can afford it and if you’re serious. I can usually tell pretty quickly.

Are you going to be in Tokyo forever?
I’ll be here at least another 5-10 years. I may go to the States or Finland (where my wife is from), but I’ll continue in real estate.

How do you chill out?
I’ve been doing Okinawan Kenpo (a form of karate) for 15 years. It gives me good mental and physical balance.

What’s the weirdest experience you’ve had in Japan?
I dressed up once as a woman for Halloween, with stockings, wig and all, and went to a club, and got my butt pinched by another guy. You should have seen his face when I turned around and asked him, “What do you think you’re doing?” in a baritone voice. www.platinum1000.com CB

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