Lost in translation on Japanese screens

by Setsuko Kamiya

Unlike the countries that tend to dub foreign movies, Japan has been mainly using subtitles for more than 70 years. No one knows exactly why, but some say the Japanese simply enjoy hearing the original voices of the actors and the sounds in the background. Most now take it for granted that going to the movies means reading subtitles.

Good subtitling is thus indispensable for the audience. And that is why some people are upset when they spot poor subtitles. They believe that they warp directors’ intentions, mystify audiences and ruin the cinematic experience that people pay for. There was a scandal just two years ago, for example, when angry “Lord of the Rings” fans lobbied the movie-trilogy’s Japan distributor, Nippon Herald Films, demanding improvements to the subtitles written by popular subtitler Natsuko Toda.

Of course some problems are partly due to the technical demands of the craft. Compared with other fields of translation, subtitlers have greater freedom to paraphrase foreign dialogue — but this is also a result of their constraints. The number of words that can appear on screen must be limited so the sentences can keep up with the flow of the story. And this is on top of getting the dialogue across while compensating for cultural differences.

Given this, subtitling is undoubtedly hard work. But some in the industry think subtitlers have been taking too many liberties with scripts, a phenomenon they blame not only on the subtitlers, but on the mind-set of the industry itself.

Film director Masato Harada, 54, says he has long been bothered by the philosophy of mainstream subtitlers, who he says believe the rapidly changing lines of text must be simple to make movies “easier to understand,” a habit handed down by their pre-war seniors. “Because of their explanatory interpretations, Japanese are forced to watch movies without appreciating all that crisp dialogue.”

Harada, who directed “Inugami” (2001) and other movies, worked on the subtitles for Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) after the American director, who retranslated the work of Toda’s back into English, asked for replacements because he wanted the nuances of the dialogues rendered more faithfully. As a director who writes his own scripts and is also careful about the subtitles on his own works screened overseas, Harada said he sympathized with Kubrick.

“Producers and scriptwriters each have their own personalities, and that must be respected,” Harada said.

Most movies are translated by a select group of popular subtitlers (whose names appear in the credits) at the request of local distributors. According to an employee of a major film production company in Tokyo, who asked to be referred to only as “S,” distributors hesitate to take the risk of hiring inexperienced newcomers because an awkward translation might ruin its box-office potential.

But although experienced subtitlers are essential to a film’s success, the conditions under which the subtitlers work may also be another cause of the problem.

Subtitles are often completed within a short space of time — often just a week or two — to meet tight screening schedules. In the case of simultaneous releases in Japan and the United States, subtitlers may not even have the final cut to work from.

Director Harada said distributors should take more care when working on subtitles, especially those for major movies that could be nominated for the Academy Awards.

His opinion is echoed by movie critic Atsu Osanai, who says distributors should take more responsibility for the final product. Although they are supposed to double-check the subtitles, Osanai says she has heard of cases where they only confirm that the subtitles are timed correctly with the scene. In other cases, “corrections” made in haste when errors were spotted before shipping often turn out to be erroneous themselves because no one bothered to run the change past the subtitler. Osanai has even witnessed cases where mistakes found at preview screenings were left in because the distributors said they didn’t have time to fix them.

As an effort to improve the situation, “the names of distributors should be listed in the credits alongside those of the subtitlers,” she said.

Meanwhile, the industry is seeing an increase in dubbing, especially for family-oriented movies, such as the “Harry Potter” series, which audiences find easier to watch because it allows them to focus on the stories. In addition, demand for dubbing has climbed with the growing popularity of DVDs, where dubbing is considered just one of many standard viewing options.

Dubbers can convey three times more information than subtitlers can, and dubbing can handle several people speaking simultaneously. Subtitlers mainly concentrate on the main characters.

But dubbing has its downside, as well. For example, dubbers must translate freely in some cases, such as movies aired on TV, to tone down offensive language. Sometimes, according to S, they have to change product names in the movie to avoid upsetting the program’s corporate sponsors.

The cost of dubbing a movie is also much higher than subtitling because it requires more staff, including actors, S said. Nevertheless, an increasing number of movies recruit celebrity voice actors to attract more viewers.

Subtitlers and dubbers are usually different people. Videos and DVDs often use the same subtitles made for the movie’s original release. But dubbed lines, added later, usually differ. The DVD version of “The Last Samurai” includes both Toda’s subtitled version (as released in the cinema) and a dubbed version, “directed” by Harada, who starred in the film as the sinister Omura. Viewers may find the dubbed dialogue is a far better match for the nuances of the original than the subtitles.

One possible scenario: If DVDs with dubbed dialogue catch on, and more Japanese become aware of the difference, maybe viewers will become more demanding and the movie industry will be nudged into improving the quality of subtitling. Then maybe, just maybe, fewer things will get lost in translation.