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The delicate Japanese art of rom-com title translation

by

Special To The Japan Times

Here’s a bit of a revelation: Many Japanese women secretly prefer Renee Zellweger over Scarlett Johansson as their favorite Hollywood actress. The women I’ve talked to say “Sukajo,” as Johansson is called over here, is too classy, flashy and altogether inaccessible, whereas Zellweger is endearingly vulnerable.

They’re talking specifically about Zellweger in the “Bridget Jones” trilogy, and their love for her has been felt at the box office. The title character has many fans here, and it’s no wonder distribution companies have poured much thought into coming up with workable, attractive Japanese titles for the franchise.

The first, 「ブリジット・ジョーンズの日記」 (Burijitto Jōnzu no Nikki, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”), was a straightforward translation, but the sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” became 「ブリジット・ジョーンズの日記 きれそうなわたしの12か月」 (Kiresō na Watashi no Jyūni-kagetsu, “For 12 Months I Nearly Lost It”). Last year we got the final installment, in which Bridget’s pregnancy was the focal point: “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” The Japanese title was 「ブリジット・ジョーンズの日記 ダメな私の最後のモテ期」 (Dame na Watashi no Saigo no Moteki, It’s the Last Chance for Little Dumb Me). It’s a title that goes straight to the hearts of Japan’s ever-growing populace of middle-aged singles. Everyone wants that モテ期 (moteki, a certain period where you’re wildly popular in the dating market) to happen first, before thinking about commitment and procreation.

Not all rom-com titles get it right. You’ll never guess the original American title of a little gem called 「ラブ・アゲイン」 (Rabu Agein, “Love Again”) here. It’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” — the 2011 sleeper hit starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the same pair from last year’s Oscar-bagging “La La Land.”

Another Oscar winner from back in 1997, “As Good As It Gets,” inexplicably became 「恋愛小説家」 (Renai-Shōsetsu-ka, “The Romance Novelist”). Not only is this Japanese title misleading, it’s also sexist, since it ignores the presence of Helen Hunt, who steals practically every scene from Jack Nicholson’s titular romance novelist.

Four years prior to that, we had one of the most popular rom-coms of all time: “Sleepless in Seattle.” This title was switched to 「めぐり逢えたら」 (Meguriaetara, “If We Can Meet”) immediately upon arrival. Those familiar with the film will know that the 1957 classic “An Affair to Remember” served as a catalyst in the story. The Japanese title riffed on that -— “An Affair to Remember” was released here as 「めぐり逢い」 (Meguriai, “Encounter”).

“Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003 pitted the mature charms of Diane Keaton against Nicholson’s chauvinist, ageist businessman, but once it reached our shores, it morphed into 「恋愛適齢期」(Renai Tekireiki, “A Suitable Time to Fall in Love”). This seems clunky and old-fashioned, even though the story is anything but. “He’s Just Not That Into You” in 2009 fared much better. The Japanese title is 「そんな彼なら捨てちゃえば?」(Sonna Karenara Sutechaeba? “If He’s Like That, Why Not Just Dump Him?”). It marks one of the rare occasions when the Japanese title sides with women instead of men.

By the way, it became completely OK for Japanese women to pronounce the word sekkusu (sex) out loud and in public after “Sex and the City” came out here in 1999 (the Japanese title was in katakana: 「セックス・アンド・ザ・シティ」). Sure, there had been Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (「セックスと嘘とビデオテープ」, Sekkusu to Uso to Bideotēpu) 10 years earlier, but that was art-house fare and didn’t really permeate the Japanese female consciousness the way Carrie Bradshaw and her pals did. Before Carrie appeared on the scene clicking her Manolos, sekkusu was エッチ (ecchi). Thankfully, ecchi, or “H,” has gone out of style, and only the crustiest おじさん (ojisan, middle-aged man) uses that term anymore.

Until the 1970s, both sekkusu and “H” were banned from mainstream media; the accepted and widely used word was 情事 (jōji, sex, love affair). Somehow, this Japanese term sounded darker, more mysterious and more alluring than its Western counterpart. Consider that when “Love in the Afternoon” was released here in 1957, audiences went wild over the Japanese title 「昼さがりの情事」(Hirusagari no Jōji, “Sex in the Afternoon”), which sounds downright naughty. Leading couple Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, however, only got as far as a kiss.

Titles aside, it feels like much of the romance has disappeared from the rom-com genre — called ラブコメ (rabu-kome, love comedies) in Japan. Moviegoers recently got a blast of U.S. comic Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” who went above and beyond to be as explicit as humanly possible regarding her sexual activities. Apparently, even “sex” was just too lame for her and the Japanese subtitles were strewn with words that would have given my grandmother a coronary. “Trainwreck,” by the way, was 「エイミー、エイミー、エイミー! こじらせシングルライフの抜け 出し方」 (“Amy, Amy, Amy! How to Escape this Messed-up Single Life”), perhaps a stroke of translation brilliance. We do indeed get a triple dose of Schumer in all her funny glory, but you can’t help feeling the movie has nothing to do with ラブ (rabu, love) or ロマンス (romansu, romance).