The text on some DVD covers is bad enough, as previously noted, but what’s on the actual disc can be much worse. Can anyone tell me why the English subtitles on old Japanese films are consistently ludicrous? This is something I first discovered while watching Star Movies’ “100 Years of Cinema” telecasts in the early 1990s, and it hasn’t changed through years of going to film festivals/DVD-watching. Even the discs produced by the British Film Institute have subtitles that appear to have been written by someone who took a crash course in Japanese and English the previous weekend and is now acquainted with exactly 10 words in each language, not counting proper nouns.
For example, my disc of Kurosawa’s Ikiru – about an elderly bureaucrat, Watanabe, discovering he has stomach cancer and just six months to live – nearly manages a difficult feat: spoiling the impact of this very elegiac film. One problem is the incongruous use of slang (“I wanna die earlier, but I cannot die!” bewails the melancholy Watanabe), but those sentences are at least comprehensible. What to make of this exchange?
Woman: Dad is punctual to go out.
Visitor at doorstep: But he has not applied into work, that’s why I come here.
[Translation: The woman, Watanabe’s housekeeper, is saying, “Dad left for work early today.” The visitor at the door, Watanabe’s colleague, is startled to hear this because the bureaucrat has not been coming in to work for a few days.]
Then there’s the bit where Watanabe’s son finds out that his father has withdrawn a large sum of money from the bank, and a family friend speculates that he is out having a good time:
Family friend: 50,000 dollars! It is great to spend it on women!
Son: No, wouldn’t be!
Family friend: That would surprise you? I think he is erotic. He does all good for you for 20 years. Now, it is his time to explode.
Family friend’s wife (speculating that Watanabe hasn’t been looking well of late): He become skinny with rough skin.
Meanwhile, Watanabe, distraught that he has cancer (and also that he is being discussed in such terrible translation), meets a writer at a bar and tells him about his illness.
Writer: You should not drink the wines! It is like committing suicide if you know yourself of cancer.
Watanabe (in keeping with the Noh tradition of adding an ‘s’ to nearly every word): Sometimes wines helps forgets unhappy things.
Upon hearing this, I hit the Pause button, poured myself a large glass of wine and then resumed watching. A few minutes later, the words were making much more sense.