One Lousy Syllable

We got on the subject of subtitles Saturday night (as you do after a few beers). Americans and (English) Canadians generally have an aversion to anything dubbed or subtitled which, although they’ll never know it, is their loss. For the rest of the world, subtitles and dubbing are a fact of life. In Japan, subtitlers (subtitlists?) are highly respected and get a full credit inserted at the end of any movie they work on. Presently, the most famous one is the freelance Toda Natsuko (戸田 奈津子), who gets the blockbusters (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, etc) sent to her as a matter of course (for an article about the grief she gets from Potter and Tolkien otaku for her her subtitles of the well-known epics, click here).

Off the top of my head, the only English subtitle-writer I can name is Anthony Burgess. Near the end of his life, he took on the task of subtitling Depardieu’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an excellent French period drama performed completely in rhyming couplets. I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow managed to perform the same feat in English, and the results are almost seamless. Not only did he accurately transliterate the original dialogue, but he made it rhyme as well. So I get a double pleasure every time I watch it, which admittedly, isn’t often.

Yun had an example of how incompetent subtitles can ruin your understanding of a good movie. She told us about the time during her college days in California when a prof showed her class Black Rain (the sombre Japanese movie about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, not the Michael Douglas police drama). She was the only Japanese student in the class, but out of habit found herself reading the subtitles. In the movie, the main character begins experiencing the symptoms of radiation sickness. As her hair begins falling out while she tries to brush it, her mother says something like, “You should go to the hospital.” At which point Yun burst out laughing in the middle of class, because the subtitle (the only thing that everyone else understood) was, “You should go to the hairdresser’s.”

The Japanese word for “hospital” is byouin. The Japanese word for “beauty salon” is biyouin. So for about 20 years, American film buffs and historians have been watching this scene and interpreting it, no doubt, as an example of Japanese stoicism and the cultural imperative to keep up appearances at all cost. What it actually demonstrates is one syllable too many on the part of the subtitlist, who apparently couldn’t read the very different kanji, was winging it, and mis-heard.

On a happier note, guess what our new stock response is whenever somebody says, “I have a headache?”

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