Hollywood sends its products all over the world but global audiences can have widely different experiences of the same Hollywood movie. In Italy, dubbing foreign films is standard; in Japan, subtitling is, though dubbing has become more common, especially for films targeted at younger audiences.
But even in quality-conscious Japan, the process of subbing and dubbing foreign films can result in Japanized versions that depart far from the originals. Among problematic practices are subtitles that dumb down dialogue and the use of voice actors that sound nothing like the Hollywood star they are ostensibly channeling, though some become so strongly identified with said star that they are effectively irreplaceable.
Well aware of these and other pitfalls, some Hollywood filmmakers have become hands-on about localizing their films for international markets. Among the most experienced and meticulous is Steven Soderbergh, who catapulted to prominence with his 1989 feature debut “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Winner of a Cannes Palme d’Or, the film jump-started the U.S. indie movement, though in his subsequent career Soderbergh has alternated between multiplex fare (2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two follow-ups) and smaller, more experimental films. The latest of the latter is “High Flying Bird,” a drama set in the world of professional basketball that was shot entirely with an iPhone 8 and is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
With the assistance of long-time friend and associate Larry Blake — an Emmy-winning sound editor who has worked on nearly every Soderbergh film of the past four decades (but not “High Flying Bird”) — Soderbergh has assembled an international team of localization consultants. Their job description varies from territory to territory, but their general remit is to make sure Soderbergh’s vision survives the transition to Tokyo, Paris, Rome and elsewhere, with Blake usually doing the final sound mix of foreign versions at his New Orleans studio.
As Blake explains to me, Soderbergh’s contracts give him control over the dubbed and subtitled versions of his films.
In Japan, the person most directly representing Soderbergh to local distributors is Azby Brown, an architect, artist and design professional who has lived here since 1985 and written extensively in various fields. A native of New Orleans, Brown has known Blake since high school and Soderbergh since 1991, though his involvement in film localization started with “Ocean’s Eleven.”
“Larry asked me how good the translation work was — and I said it was pretty bad for a lot of reasons,” Brown says. One example: The film’s hero, Danny Ocean, is paroled from prison early in the story, but the Japanese subtitle referred to his “release.” Not quite the same.
Since “Ocean’s Eleven” the Japanese-fluent Brown’s participation has evolved beyond translation checking: He now supervises every step of the localization process, from dubbing sessions to the sound mix.
“My job as a supervisor is to protect the director’s vision and help the translators and everyone else understand and interpret that,” he says. “So we have these long discussions about the story, the script and the language. For instance there will be a line of dialogue that can be serving several purposes. It can advance the plot, inject humor, let us know something about a character. It can be all these things.” And finding the right Japanese word or phrase that covers all these bases is often not easy.
Since many of Soderbergh’s films are major studio releases, Brown has often worked with the major Japanese distributors that handle them. Their subbing and dubbing is typically done by a mix of in-house staff and outside subcontractors. Brown collaborates with these professionals more as a partner than an outside critic. He says he will often stay up late to help with the work: “I’m happy to do the heavy lifting to keep them on schedule.”
But there is “an elephant in the room,” Brown says. “One reason why the quality of translation here can be slipshod even with very talented people doing it is they don’t get paid enough to spend enough time.”
Another problem, he adds, is “overexplaining.” “The (subtitlers) assume that the audience cannot understand the reference, so they overexplain. Sometimes it telegraphs what’s going to happen later, and sometimes it’s just pure mistranslation.”
Meanwhile, Blake and his supervisors identify potential problem areas in the English script, such as names and phrases that Blake describes as “ripe for translation screw up, things that you usually don’t want translated literally.” After the translation is completed, Blake then has a back translation done “to make sure that they’re handling (the problem areas) correctly,” he adds. “Back translations are a Pandora’s box. And it’s not as easy as it seems, but it gives me a good idea.”
Blake also sends his supervisors what he calls a “creative letter.”
“I basically talk about the broad creative issues involved in doing the dubbed and subtitled versions,” he says. “For the (2017) movie ‘Logan Lucky’ that Azby and I worked on (the letter) was like 20 single-spaced pages.”
To check whether the supervisors read this missive all the way through, Blake inserted a section called “Special Prize.”
“I said if you’re reading this document stop now and send me an e-mail with the words ‘special prize’ in the subject heading,” he says.
“Maybe five people read every word and got the special prize,” he adds with a laugh.
One of the winners was Azby Brown.
But on “High Flying Bird,” which Soderbergh directed from a script by “Moonlight” Oscar-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, Brown supervised without Blake’s backing. The main challenge, he says, was ensuring the Japanese translation reflected the true intelligence and sophistication of the black characters, particularly the sports agent hero played by Andre Holland.
“Like almost every professional black person in the U.S. the character finds it necessary to shift his mode of speech from ‘educated’ to more vernacular language and back again,” Brown says. “Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script does a brilliant job of capturing this — it’s one of the best scripts I’ve worked with.”
In reflecting these nuances of language in Japanese, he adds, “We had to get beyond the stereotypical portrayal of black characters here as gangbangers or whatever. It was very, very challenging to do justice to McCraney’s dialogue, but I think we did it.”