The new language of translated films

From subbing to dubbing, is translated foreign cinema the new Tower of Babel?


CINEMA BABEL: Translating Global Cinema, by Abe Mark Nornes. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008, 304 pp.,$22.50 (paper)

Though foreign film is now seen by all, we are still dependent on translation to discover what is going on up on the big screen or on the little tube. This translation of dialogue can be either graphic text (subtitling) or substituted speech (dubbing).

In either case it is because the translation that the viewer must penetrate can be so confusing that the author of this highly original and always interesting book can claim that translated foreign cinema is the new Tower of Babel.

His book seeks “to recognize what happens when [films] cross linguistic frontiers and require . . . bilingual interlopers.” To demonstrate this, he fills us in on the significance of translation within film culture (the collapse of the Kurosawa-intended “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a victim of, among other things, mistranslation), shows us a more successful try (Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews), goes into the pre-dubbing world of the film commentator, with lots on the Japanese version (benshi), then turns his attention to subbing and dubbing perils.

Here the mode becomes self-admittedly polemical as the author gallops into the sub vs. dub divide in order to dismantle it. The stakes are high. The situation is bad and getting worse. “What we need are translators who are unruly, not transparently naked, not sober, but intoxicated . . . positively abusive. We want translators with attitude.”

Too long, he continues, have we been subjected to those who thought a translation should follow the rules of the target language (English in most cases), not realizing, or caring, that this tongue communicates not only the cultural assumptions of the writer but those of the language into which they are translated.

Now, posits the author, “in an age where the experience of the foreign is valued, abuse helps inject a palpable sense of the foreign.” In fact, because it ought to be against the domesticating tendencies of conventional subtitling practices, “abusive subtitling [can be seen] as a critique of dominant ideology.”

I can give examples of both since I am one of the those held up by the author to display the difference. In writing subtitles for several Kurosawa period-films I sought to augment with some period color of my own. It didn’t work and I retracted it. Here, says Nornes, I “finally exemplified the sensibility of corruption” because I called for “a scrupulously anonymous kind of English.” I felt that translation should be invisible: “The language should enter the ear as the image enters the eye.”

Nornes says: “I could not disagree more. Actually, these [prior] subtitles were quite wonderful for the way they released certain effects into English that correspond to the generically tortured Japanese of the film itself.”

Though the disagreement remains, we still warmly regard each other. Nornes is a professor at the University of Michigan and author of the excellent “Japanese Documentary Film” (2003). As an academic he is very alert to the implications of poststructuralist film theory. This includes the right (maybe even the duty) of the critic to place his own intentions alongside with those he thinks to be the author’s — respecting the integrity of the original need not be among the critic’s aims.

Nornes would thus agree with critic Philip Lewis who called for a “strong, forceful translation that values experimentation, [one that] tampers with usage . . . .” To this Nornes might add: “Corrupt subtitles disavow the violence . . . while abusive translators revel in it. The audience should be made aware of the experience of translation rather than oblivious to it.”

Mark Schilling in his review of this book (in the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators’ — SWET — Newsletter of April 2008) pointed out that “most filmgoers don’t want to be made aware of the dubbers and subbers . . . they want to watch a movie.” But it is just this situation that Nornes is out to remedy. He maintains that that “abusiveness” brings viewers closer to the experience of the original language than those ‘corrupt’ subtitles.

“The question,” writes Nornes, “is how the finest translators can be nurtured while protecting them from the twin forces of rationalization and domestication.”

Though his book addresses world cinema, Nornes is so closely associated with Japanese cinema and his examples are so often of Japanese origin that it deserves this space on The Asian Bookshelf, and to be read for its masterful overview and unbuttoned polemic.