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By Kevin McGue

Extremely Lost in Translation

Japanese subtitles for foreign films can turn drama into comedy

Kevin McGue is a freelance translator and editor in Tokyo

In his essay “Cultural Ventriloquism,” French subtitler Henri Behar recalls seeing Sam Peckinpah’s war epic Cross of Iron in Paris. In one scene, exhausted soldiers crouch in a foxhole, awaiting battle. One soldier sees heavily armed vehicles coming their way. “Tanks!” he yells, calling his comrades to action. “Tanks!” The French subtitle? “Merci! Merci!” While I have yet to see errors quite this bad in Japanese subtitles of English-language movies, I am often surprised by the mismatches, misinterpretations and downright mistakes I see at the bottom (or often on the right side) of big screens around Tokyo.

As a native English speaker, I really have no need to read the Japanese subtitles of English-language movies, but I always do. I suppose I started it in order to improve my Japanese reading ability, but now I can’t keep my eyes off the subtitles. I am sometimes struck by a translator’s clever rendition—in a very limited space—of the English original. More often, though, I want to stand up in the darkened theater and yell at the screen, “You gotta be kidding!”

Subtitle flubs can be caused by misunderstandings of idioms, mishearing the dialogue, or, it seems, occasional wild guessing. Here are a few examples:

In Pieces of April, a mother suffering from terminal cancer struggles to find at least one good memory of her estranged daughter. She remembers young April asking, “Oh, mother, don’t you just love every day?” The Japanese subtitle is, “Mama, won’t you love me every day?” The girl’s joyous, poetic observation suddenly becomes an insecure plea.

In the Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like it Hot, an undercover cop in Al Capone-era Chicago goes in to a funeral home to bust up a speakeasy hidden in the backroom. “I haven’t seen you at our services before,” remarks the “undertaker.”

“Cause I been on the wagon [i.e., not drinking],” the cop replies, panicking the undertaker, who wants no mention of alcohol to blow his cover. The subtitle? “I went on a trip.”

In the all-time classic Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa nervously wait for German troops to pull in to Paris. They finally do, making foreboding announcements in German over loudspeakers. Bogart, wanting to know what they are saying but too proud to admit he never studied a word of the language, shakes his head and says “My German’s a bit rusty.” In Japanese he says simply, “They’re German!” and we expect Bergman to reply “Well, duh!”

In the drug saga Spun, an ever-cool Mickey Rourke tells his girlfriend to tell a freaking-out Jason Schwartzman to “chill out.” She does, but in Japanese she doesn’t tell him to “Ochitsuite!” (“Calm down!”), but rather “Hiyashite!” (“Chill it!”—as in champagne, milk, etc, without the idiomatic meaning of the English phrase).

In Woody Allen’s recent Melinda and Melinda, Melinda and her new boyfriend, Bill, are trying to play cupid for the recently divorced Hobie. “I am more than happy to stay at home and…” starts Hobie, who secretly pines for Melinda. Melinda, sensing that Hobie isn’t really happy, finishes his sentence, “…and mope?” But in Japanese, she says: “…and mop?” For a viewer who can only understand the subtitles, this must cause confusion on a number of levels. Since mopping the floor has nothing to do with the subject of conversation, it seems Melinda isn’t really paying attention to Hobie, but in fact she cares about him enough to see he is hiding his loneliness. Also, it is revealed later in the film that down-in-the-dumps Hobie is definitely not cleaning his bachelor pad, so why did Melinda say he would be mopping? Doesn’t she understand men?

I admit that a subtitler’s job is by no means easy. He or she must keep up to date with two ever-changing languages, and translate the essential meaning of the dialogue clearly and in as few words as possible. Otherwise, the subtitles would completely block out the action on the screen. Natsuko Toda, by far the most famous and prolific subtitler in Japan, remarked in last week’s Metropolis that she can normally see a film only once before she produces the subtitles, and often the screen is blacked out to prevent piracy.

Jokes are hard to translate and puns are a nightmare. There are tight deadlines, and of course everyone makes mistakes. However, the mistranslations mentioned above are really inexcusable. The directors and producers of the films, a majority of whom can’t understand the subtitles, can only assume that Japanese distributors and translators are fulfilling their professional responsibility to carry over the basic dramatic intent of the original. However, this is clearly not always the case. Rather than continuing a system in which one “star” translator is given assignments based on their long resume, producing translations that are checked by no one, wouldn’t it be better to have teams of two translators—one native speaker of the original language, and one Japanese speaker—work together? Until then, film audiences will go on being confused, and occasionally amused, by what they read on the screen.

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