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For the past four decades, after the lights dim and curtains go up at cinemas around Japan, the credits that have flashed on screens at the start of hundreds of foreign films have acknowledged subtitle translator Natsuko Toda.

At age 78, Toda is the doyen in her field, and she has also served as the interpreter during Japan visits by such Hollywood luminaries as “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, among others.

In the May 5 issue of Sankei Shimbun Toda offered her views in an opinion piece titled 日本語が貧しくなっている (“Nihongo ga mazushiku natte iru,” “The Japanese language is becoming impoverished”), in which she offered a somewhat pessimistic view of the changing conditions of her work. Portions have been excerpted below with the Sankei’s kind permission.

One thing Toda disdains is requests from film distributors to “dumb down” words or phrases.

“The film companies are telling me, ‘Change the kanji in subtitles to hiragana,’ ” she writes, giving the example of 拉致 (rachi, abduction), which she is instructed to write as ら致 (rachi ), with the hiragana ら (ra) substituted for its corresponding kanji.

“Japanese viewers like subtitles,” she writes. “I suppose there are various reasons, but I think it’s because Japanese are diligent and desire correct knowledge about foreign countries. They like the real thing. Japanese want to hear the actual voice of Tom Cruise, but audiences in most (other) countries aren’t interested in Tom’s voice, so they view (films with) overdubbed voices.”

Toda thinks of her subtitles in terms of how aesthetically pleasing they are. She writes in the article that, 「視覚的には漢字が文章を引き締め、ひらがなは柔らかい。」 (“Shikakuteki ni wa, kanji ga bunsho¯ o hikishime, hiragana wa yawarakai,” “Visually, kanji tighten up the text and hiragana soften it”), adding 「あのバランスが大画面で見たときにとても美しい」 (“Ano baransu ga daigamen de mita toki ni totemo utsukushī,” “It’s beautiful to see them in balance on the large screen”). 「残念ながらその素晴らしい文化が崩れつつあります」 (“Zan’nen nagara sono subarashī bunka ga kuzuretsutsu arimasu,” “Unfortunately that wonderful culture continues to deteriorate”).

She also gave some insights into the essence of subtitling in Japan, saying 「映画字幕の翻訳と通常の翻訳は別ものなんです」 (“Eigajimaku no honyaku to tsūjō no honyaku wa betsu mono nan desu,” “Film subtitles and translation are different things”).

「字幕が字数に縛られていることを知らない人から『誤訳』などと批判を受けることもありますが、気にしません」 (“Jimaku ga jisū ni shibareteiru koto o shiranai hito kara, ‘goyaku’ nado to hihan o ukeru koto mo arimasu ga, ki ni shimasen,” “I have also been criticized for ‘incorrect translations’ by people who don’t know that the number of characters in subtitles are constrained, but that doesn’t bother me”).

「もちろん間違った訳や下手な意訳はいけない」 (“Mochiron machigatta yaku ya heta na iyaku wa ikenai,” “Of course, mistakes or poorly rendered free translation are unacceptable”).

「理想的な字幕は、観客に字を読んだという意識が何も残らない字幕なんです」 (“Riso¯teki na jimaku wa, kankyaku ni ji o yonda to iu ishiki ga nanimo nokoranai jimaku nan desu,” “The ideal subtitles are those for which nothing lingers in the viewer’s mind after having read the words”).

「画面の人が日本語をしゃべっていたと錯覚を起こすくらい『透明な字幕』が一番いいんです.」 (“Gamen no hito ga Nihongo o shabetteita to sakkaku o okosu kurai ‘to¯mei na jimaku’ ga ichiban ii desu,” “The best subtitles are so ‘invisible’ that (viewers) almost have the illusion that the person on the screen is speaking Japanese”).

When translators change subtitles intentionally it can be very instructive, and I think they should be given leeway, in particular for comedy films. Humor tends to be rather difficult to convey, and if a gag falls flat in straight translation and the translator can find a way to render it more humorous, then I’m all for it.

I’ve seen some wonderfully creative examples that makes me glad I reflexively read the Japanese subtitles — even when the film’s dialogue is in English.

My personal favorite for creativity goes to a scene in the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy “Young Frankenstein.” Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) greets Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) at the gate of his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania and, in heavily accented English says, “I am Frau Blucher.”

At the mere sound of her name, lightning flashes across the sky and the horses pulling the wagon rear up on their hind legs and whinny in terror.

Watching this on TV, my Japanese friend chortled with glee, but I missed the gag. “What did she say?” I asked.

The translator had made the character’s lines even funnier than the original English. Instead of “I am Frau Blucher,” Leachman says in Japanese, 「私はバニークックー」 (“Watashi wa Banī Kukkū,” “I am Bunny Cuckoo”) — a Western-sounding name, but also a wonderfully coined pun for 馬肉食う (baniku kuu, I eat horse meat).

No wonder those horses were terrified!

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