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.

“Glee” – My New Perspective

From the "Glee" website...

I took my daughter to see the “3-D Glee” movie last week.  It hasn’t been open long in Tokyo, and since she had a day off from school, lunch and the movies seemed like a good plan.  As a rule, I’m not a fan of “Glee.” Perhaps I would be if we lived in the U.S., but with the time difference, beyond college football, there is very little American TV that we watch regularly.

A lot of parents have thought that the show “Glee” focuses on the music, when in reality, the students at this particular mid-western high school go through more than their fair share of teenage angst, including issues of homosexuality, teen pregnancy and bullying in the form of being “slushy-ed” – have a slushy thrown in one’s face.    To be sure, the music is great – it’s a mix of classic and new that appeals to a wide audience of fans.  The choreography is great and the few times I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed the musical factor.  But I have turned it off in between numbers when watching with my 9-year-old due to some of the themes.

What I didn’t know was about “Glee’s” beginnings and why the devoted fans of the show are called “Gleeks.”  Apparently, joining the glee club in high school used to be the height of looser-ness, and this club is comprised of kids from a myriad of social, ethnic and ability groups that all must come together for the glee club – or, more commonly called, a show choir.  The show has a subtext of acceptance – getting to know and embrace yourself, warts and all.

That’s where the movie comes in.  It’s a concert movie, which means that it’s based mostly on music, like the “Hannah Montana” or “Justin Beiber” concert movies. It has also been held up to the Michael Jackson flick, “This Is It.”  However, those movies focused on the artists and showed a lot of their backgrounds and real lives in between songs.  The “Glee” movie has garnered a lot of criticism for this actually – they don’t do much with the actors between musical numbers.

However, what I enjoyed most about the movie – and taking my 9-year-old to see it, was the genius sketches between musical numbers.

In between songs, the filmmakers introduced viewers to a few people who have been positively influenced by the show.  These are no ordinary people – they’re outsiders, different and “Glee” has made them embrace their differences and celebrate them.  One was a guy who “came out” as a homosexual in 8th grade, unwillingly.  In fact, he had a rough go: a former friend outed him.  But “Glee” has helped him accept himself.  One was a dwarf – a little person – who is a cheerleader and got to be prom queen.  She identifies with some of the Glee club members and never misses an episode.  Then there’s the girl with Aspergers Syndrome who joined a chat room for people who love “Glee,” and now she has her first friends ever in her fifteen years, and she watches the show with them weekly.  My daughter loved the music, but she admired the young-people between the songs as well.  And she learned something about people – and accepting differences.

I expected to have some fun with my daughter having lunch and seeing some nice music being performed, but I didn’t expect to have teachable moments with her – and to learn something myself.

Technically the “Glee” movie is a flop because it didn’t even recoup production costs even with its blockbuster opening fanfare across the globe – it opened in 2000 theaters simultaneously.  Part of the reasons cited by various critics is that it doesn’t focus on the inner lives of the character or the actors who play them.   But I think this way was much better – a stronger focus.  I plan to become a somewhat regular viewer now.

Kudos to “Glee.”