Subtitles and the Nuance of Language

languagesSome of my best conversations happen in Starbucks over a skim latte.  This week my friend and I were chatting about movies.  She’s Korean, this close friend of mine, but she came to Japan as an expat with her family when she was a teenager, and between that and college at Boston University, the result is that she is perfectly trilingual between Korean, Japanese and English.  She has a lot of Chinese ability too, but she plays it down as a fourth language.  My interest in words and language often mesh with her ability to see language from a different perspective than I do and this day was no different.

Recently my friend had seen “Les Miserables” in the theater.  I had never thought about it before, but being trilingual has a distinct effect on her movie-going experience.  She’s fluent in English so she saw the film in English, but the Japanese subtitles that were inevitably present captured more of her attention than she would have liked.  Then she was thinking of her Mother in Seoul, who would have also seen the film in English, but with Korean subtitles.  In the Korean language, there is no “Z” sound.  This had an interesting effect on one particular scene in the movie.  The innkeeper and his wife are looking to get as much money out of Valjean as they can when he comes to take Cosette from them, but the innkeeper can’t even remember the girl’s name and bumbles around saying Colette, Courgette, and other things, and finally the wife reminds him of “Cosette.”  My friend was wondering how the Korean translator would have expressed “Cojette” since there is no Z sound in Korean and it would have made no difference in writing between Cosette and Cojette when the innkeeper calls the girl “Cojette”.  She speculates that perhaps that particular joke is lost on Korean viewers since they can’t properly see or read the name Cosette as it is meant to be heard or read anyway.  What she is pointing out is that a lot of nuance and puns are lost in translation and that language plays a role in the formation and context in which we see a film.

My friend thinks that the problems are actually bigger when a foreign film is translated into English, particularly from Korean or Japanese.  Japanese has a lot of sensitive feminine speech, the nuance of which can’t be translated into English at all because it has to do more with the way the speaker feels when using those particular words.  If the character didn’t feel a certain way, she wouldn’t use those particular phrases.  Another example my friend gives is when a child is speaking to a grandparent on-screen.  There are certain ways of addressing grandparents that a Japanese child would use that have no direct translation into English.  One example is the word “you” – a child would never ask directly if “you wanted something” when speaking to a respected elder.  “You” can be a very harsh, direct word that a child would not use. But there is no other way to translate that into English – English doesn’t have a nuanced way of speaking relationally the way more formal languages such as Japanese do.  The translators do the best they can when writing the subtitles to capture the real meanings of the ideas and thoughts presented, but they have limited structures of language in which to work.  It’s not so much words exactly as it is deferential structures of speaking.

My friend looks at the subtitles of a film with the curiosity of someone interested in language.  She admits that sometimes when a touching or thoughtful scene is on the screen, she looks down on purpose to see how it’s translated, no matter in which language she is seeing the film.  She also admits that sometimes she misses a moment of the action if she’s examining subtitles, particularly if it’s non-verbal on-screen.  She laughingly says it’s the price she pays for learning and interest.

I am now resolved to see more films with my friend, and of course, to have more lattes together.

4 thoughts on “Subtitles and the Nuance of Language

  1. I remember watching “The Usual Suspects” in France with my husband and us being the only ones laughing at the key funny lines, in particular a line about Lee Harvey Oswald. So not only did it not translate well in the subtitles, there was no cultural translation either. Oswald didn’t have any meaning for the folks in that movie theater in Paris.

  2. Because of so many differences that exist beyond alphabetical or grammatical structure, so many things can be lost in translation, especially those deeper meanings that can make or break a moment or a scene.

  3. Really interesting post 🙂 I sometime do what your friend does, and look at subtitles to see whether it’s been translated correctly, and sometimes it’s completely different! Sometime they have to translate it culturally, rather than literally by using an another person or situation that culture will be able to respond and relate too. It’s all very interesting…

  4. very interesting post. It shows that nuances are hard to translate whatever the language. But I guess in a movie this is all about the feeling and emotions, as long as subtitles translate the main meaning, the viewer can still get the atmosphere and the meaning of the movie.

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