DIALOGUE DOCTORS

When wrong can be right

by Jim Bailey

At the beginning of “Showgirls,” suspicious that a kind seamstress might be physically attracted to her, aspiring chorine Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) asks: “Are you hitting on me?” The Japanese subtitle reads: “Are you making fun of me?”

Toward the conclusion of “Frankie and Johnny,” Johnny (Al Pacino) tells Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) that “two people coming together” — i.e., establishing a relationship — “is scary.” The Japanese subtitle reads: “It’s unusual for two people to have simultaneous orgasms.”

If former New York Times film critic Renata Adler is correct, then many Japanese subtitles are not fulfilling their noblest purpose. “Only in movies,” argued Adler, “can one hear foreign languages spoken and — by the written word in subtitles — participate as closely as one ever will in a culture that is otherwise closed to one.”

Whatever else you may say about them, subtitlers who overlook an actual sexual reference in a bad film (“Showgirls”) and discover a nonexistent sexual reference in a good one (“Frankie and Johnny”) probably don’t contribute much to unsealing vacuum-packed cultures. Then again, pace Adler, that’s never been the overriding goal of subtitlers or dubbers or, for that matter, Hollywood.

Supposedly guilty of cultural imperialism, American studios have a long history of taking the Neville Chamberlain approach to overseas markets. “Like it or not,” writes Ruth Vassey in “The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939,” Hollywood’s “appeasement” of the foreign market has been an “essential part of business.” Studios have been prepared “to modify, obfuscate and eliminate movie content” to succeed. The same goes for TV broadcasters vis-a-vis program content.

Appeasing the Japanese market sometimes requires wrong translations. Not so much “dead” wrong ones like those above, as ones that are wrong for a reason. On one episode of ABC’s “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” broadcast on NHK, Doogie’s best friend, Vinnie Delpino, falls in love with a girl awaiting corneal transplants. “She’s the perfect woman for me,” enthuses Vinnie. “She’s blind.” Dubbed Vinnie says: “She’s the perfect woman for me. She’s beautiful.”

Necessary modification

The dubber in question almost certainly didn’t mistake “She’s blind” for “She’s blindingly gorgeous.” The dubber was likely engaging in necessary modification — because joking references to physical or mental disabilities are severely proscribed here. This also explains what happened to an “Ally McBeal” episode featuring a joke about a woman with “no arms, no legs, just a torso.” When broadcast on NHK, the modified and obfuscated joke concerned an otherwise whole woman with a “complex” about her stubby arms and legs.

There’s another type of translation that’s wrong for a reason. Sometimes, dialogue is so culture-specific, its direct rendering without explanatory footnotes would leave local audiences scratching their numbed skulls. Here, the correct approach by a translator to the carefully crafted original text is to eliminate it and improvise.

Take, for example, the following exchange from ABC’s yuppie-centric TV comedy/drama, “thirtysomething.” Discussing an upcoming weekend in the country, Michael Steadman says: “We get to make these big meals — very ‘Big Chill.’ ” Chimes in friend Gary Shepherd: “Yeah, I get to have the affair with Meg Tilly.” Adds Elliot Weston: “Can I be dead?”

For those over-30, upwardly mobile viewers to whom this series was geared, the references to “The Big Chill,” director Lawrence Kasdan’s yuppie-centric 1983 film, are pretty clear. Seven former ’60s radicals and idealists, now working 24/7 within The System, reunite at a friend’s funeral and spend the weekend noshing, engaging in dalliances and discussing the courses their lives have taken.

But while “The Big Chill” strikes a chord with Americans of a certain age and background, it doesn’t exactly resonate with their Japanese counterparts. Thus, when that episode of “thirtysomething” was aired on commercial TV here, a dubbed Michael Steadman says: “Let’s have a barbecue — the food will be heavy, though.” Chimes in friend Gary Shepherd: “If you want a barbecue, leave everything to me.” Adds another friend, Elliot Weston: “I’ll pass.”

On another episode of “thirtysomething,” known here as “Naisusaatii (Nice Thirty),” recurring character Ellyn says that her boyfriend “grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting; mine was more like Hieronymous Bosch.” This is dubbed: “He was looked after by wonderful parents, so he’s used to being loved.”

To be sure, that accurately conveys Ellyn’s description of her squeeze. But it does so in the same way that the English-language subtitle, “I’m presently unemployed,” would accurately convey the meaning of the Japanese declaration, “I’m a ronin.” Where, you may ask, is the consciousness-expanding, eye-opening, horizon-broadening cultural specificity?

To which question, exporters of American film and TV programs would probably reply: Who needs it? Economist Paul Krugman once wrote that, with the notable exception of entertainment, America just isn’t very good at selling stuff abroad. It could be argued that American entertainment succeeds overseas by not insisting on textual fidelity — by not always figuratively installing the steering wheel on the left-hand side of the car, no matter where in the world it’s sold.

Modifying, obfuscating and eliminating content may be good for business, but not necessarily so helpful in opening otherwise closed cultures. The dubbed Ellyn of “thirtysomething” could be her Japanese equivalent from Somewhere Prefecture when she greets a lawyer friend thus: “It’s been such a long time since we last met. Don’t you have anything else to ask me?”

Or, as she puts it in her native tongue: “Is that a subpoena in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”