Monday, May 05, 2008

DVD subtitles: He become skinny, punctual and don’t wanna die

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Then there’s the bit where Watanabe’s son finds out that his father has withdrawn a large sum of money from the bank, and a family friend speculates that he is out having a good time: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.


  1. It's a pity that such errors in subtitles appear even in the original dvd's.

    Where do you buy these dvd's from? Even I want to get dvd's of films of Kurosawa and other international directors.

    Do you know any place where I could get the dvd's of the serial 'Oshin' with English subtitles?

  2. If its any consolation (or maybe it adds to your frustration), I just read the dialogues you posted without reading the context and I was able to understand what they meant - when I checked your explanatory notes, it matched with my understanding of the situation from the dialogues:-)
    No, I am not Noh, whoever/whatever that is.

  3. Karthik: the Ikiru DVD is from Palika Bazaar, I also have a couple of Kurosawas/Ozus from London and a disc of Ran that was purchased from a regular Musicland.

    Don't know about Oshin unfortunately - I don't think I've seen it in any shop.

    Anon: congrats, maybe you should get a job as a benshi - interpreting for the audience.

  4. there is an excellent edition of Ikiru by criterion... I don't know if any rentals keep the originals in delhi but in I know, in bangalore you can find it. There are two long documentaries and a commentary. In general, criterion has served Kurosawa extremely well. Of couse you need lot of time and devotion to go through all the supplements but still...

  5. DVD subtitles,eh?...Had a similar experience with a Bergman movie once.....a young nurse prattled forth animatedly...her delivery going steadily faster......hello!where are those subtitles??? At the end of it all....she muttered something with a sense of which point the subtitles popped up helpfully to tell me "But now he is dead.."

  6. I'm a subtitler. I do English to English for UK viewers but because I'm Indian, I get to do Bollywood films or Hollywood in Hindi. Great fun. But I get about 2 a year. Wonder who does the rest. I ask because I also sometimes review/QC this stuff and it's an extremely painful way of making a living. An example -- on Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest I found the common exclamation "Oh dear" subtitled as "Oh, priye". Every time. The subtitler's bio said she had a degree in English and an MA in Hindi lit from Nagpur and was based in the US.

  7. I second Alok's suggestion. Criterion has a great range of quality DVDs. There's a national arts library here in Singapore that's got a whole range of the Criterion selection! We're very lucky..

  8. I was just wondering why you post so infrequently these days.
    I check on the blog everyday hoping to see a new post and i am disappointed.

    Write, Jai! We look forward to reading you as you pick apart books and films and a lot in between.

  9. LOL.. i know it's irritating but try to take it as an added dose of surrealism!! anyway, i work with Japanese clients in a SW company. And some of the mails/documents we get are exactly the same in nature. The problem lies with the use of translator tools. Becuse of the inherent complexity of the japanese script these tools frequently gives ridiculous results. And you know very well how absurd can they be. and yes, we work with these kind of things everyday!! :)

  10. Agree with The Transmitter. I think they don't get it done by any person at all. Maybe its just machine translation. The sad part here is that people get it subtitled because they don't know the language. So, they can't really "check" the quality.

    I haven't seen a single DVD subtitled 100% correctly.

  11. Could it be a Palika Bazaar contribution to Kurosawa's great works? The movies I have watched so far here in the US are restorations by Janus Films and the subtitles are pretty good.

  12. yes, it is painful to watch bad subtitling. I saw an Italian movie y'day where they seemed to have used a translation tool which translated word to word literally. SO it was impossible to get the gist of what was being said.
    karthik, I recently came across a website called palador which claims to bring world cinema to India in the form of dvds etc. I have not bought anything from them but they have kurosawa and other big directors on their dvd list.

  13. It is the same for Italian subtitles of Bollywood films. I guess they take the English subtitles and then use Google or some other automatic translation programme to do the translations that sound funny and quite often, non understandable.

  14. hahaha! well i worked for some japanese clients in an IT company. I've used aweful softwares to tranlate japanese to english and my job was to translate the translated english to meaningful english. Yeah i've contemplated murder sometimes.

    Consider this: where there is summer inside it does not tongue.
    translation: when the machine heats up it is not able to read.

    but the greatest coincedence that could ever happen is: when i was in chennai, I sat down to watch City of God. it's in portugese, right..and mother of god! the sublitles were in Mandarin!!! but guess what i was watching it with my american roommate who btw is very fluent in the chinese tongue.

    ...the universe conspires :D

    what we were wondering was where they found the portugese to chinese translator!

  15. "where there is summer inside it does not tongue."

    NN: you win! I don't think there was anything comparable on the Ikiru disc. Btw, was that a DVD of City of God you were watching? If so, there should definitely have been an English subtitle option as well. Maybe Mandarin was just the default option and you needed to go to the menu. (My City of God DVD has subtitles in at least 10 different languages.)

    ArSENik: Palika Bazaar isn't into the subtitling business, as far as I know. Besides, I've seen equally poor subtitles on Kurosawa and Ozu films bought from legit stores too.

  16. A devoted fan: very busy generally, and almost everything I put up these days is a version of something I've written professionally. The little free time I do have I'm spending on the TennisWorld blog - it's the clay-court season, the most important time of year!

  17. It's when the DVD says "subtittles" that you know you're in real trouble. (Suggested definition of "subtit": what happens when breast reduction surgery goes too far.)

  18. It seems like no store has the Japanese Drama Oshin with English subtitles. I'd buy it if I could find it.

  19. I recently bought a City Of God DVD from HMV in Limerick city, Ireland. My Problem is not to do with translations -they're fine- it is the size of the subtitles themselves, they're huge!

    They take up about one fifth of the actual film image. They are not down low or crossing over into the widescreen black, they are quite high up on the screen compared to other subtitled DVD's I have. Which by itself is fine, it wouldn't be that big a deal IF THEY WEREN'T SO HUGE.

    I've never come across subtitles so intrusive in all my life. They wreck the viewing experince for me. They are so distracting I can't watch the film. And its not like I bought it in a back alley, it was HMV for god sake, they're flogging loads of these copies with the same packaging for 6 euro. There are no other version of the DVD I can come across.

    Has anyone had this problem with their City of God DVD/foreign film DVD's? This problem is new to me. Is there any way of knowing about these kinds of subtle yet incredibly frustrating annoyances before you buy the DVD?

    I don't see any way of fixing it on the DVD itself. It just has english subtitles and 'english subtitles for the hearing impaired' (whatever that means, I see no difference in them).