Lost in Translation: American Movie Critics on Japanese Films

September 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Mother and Children in "Nobody Knows"/www.media.sbs.com

Most American movie critics have knowledge of a foreign language–perhaps French, Spanish or German. Regardless of the critics’ degree of fluency, however, the languages in question are almost always European languages. Few to none have any knowledge of an Asian language, yet from time to time all will review Chinese, Japanese or Korean films, relying on subtitles to make judgements about the characters, dialogue and story. 

These days, subtitles are usually quite accurate, at least in the literal sense. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen a film in which the subtitles didn’t match the dialogue–as I recall, it was a Cantonese film called “Stage Door,” which in places had subtitles rendered so inaccurately (and, to me, hilariously) that they seemed to belong to an entirely different movie. Since then, I’ve found most subtitles to be slavishly literal, which is almost as problematic.

An excellent example of a literal translation gone wrong can be found in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film, “Nobody Knows.” Based on a true story of four children who secretly live alone after being abandoned by their pathologically neglectful mother, the film begins before her departure. In a key scene, she tells her eldest child about her latest boyfriend by saying, “I’ve fallen in love with someone.” Unfortunately, the remark is subtitled, “Your mother is in love with someone now.” This prompted the reviewer, Ella Taylor, to write, “…their primary parent, who chillingly refers to herself in the third person as ‘your mother,’ is frequently away….”

It’s not chilling in the least. In Japanese, people commonly refer to themselves in the third person, particularly in family situations, a linguistic characteristic that has nothing to do with megalomania and everything to do with the importance of family roles. In Japanese homes, people are called–and call themselves–mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother and sister; the English equivalent would be “you” or “I.”  In “Nobody Knows,” the mother–however emotionally stunted and criminally negligent–is simply speaking standard Japanese.

Taylor’s mistaken assumption bothered me so much that I wrote the LA Weekly to explain the problem; to my surprise, my letter was printed under the heading “We Stand Corrected.” Re-reading the review, I should have said something about Taylor’s other glaring mistake:

The mother, who’s played by a Japanese television personality named You, for whom the part seems not much of a stretch….

You, a singer and actress who won a Japanese Academy Award for her performance in “Nobody Knows,” is hardly deserving of this slam. (And despite its resemblance to the English pronoun, her name is short for Yukiko [Snow], a common Japanese girl’s name.) 

Last year, the language in a more recent Kore-eda film raised the hackles of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. In “Still Walking,” the adult children of an elderly couple return home to mark the 15th anniversary of their brother’s death. Writes Dargis, “When Ryota arrives with his wife and stepson at his parents’ home, his father simply grunts, ‘Oh, you’re here.'”

Yes, he does–but that’s a standard man-to-man greeting in a society where emotions are deeply felt but infrequently verbalized. The gruff father, a man of few words, is an archetype in Japan, a country where garrulous types are labeled chatterboxes and fluid speakers are often dismissed as insincere. In singling out this innocuous line of dialogue, Dargis colors the father’s character in a way the Japanese original doesn’t.

Obviously, the nuances of the Japanese language can scarcely be understood by American critics who don’t speak it. But it’s not too much to ask that they run their reviews by people who speak Japanese and know the culture. Until that happens, it’s up to those of us who do to keep correcting them.

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