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.

More Fun With Japanese English

Bailey and his dad in a rare moment of sitting still before a soccer game.

A few weeks ago I was at my son’s soccer tournament and he allowed a goal (he’s a goalie).  From our side of the crowd, after the initial letdown, a shout went up: “Do Mai!”

Confused, I turned to my friend next to me, who is Japanese, but grew up mostly in the U.S.  Without me asking, she knew exactly what I wanted to know.  She explained that it really is a form of English that the crowd shouts – it’s pronounced “DOH – MY” and it is a shortened and Japanese style way of saying “DON’T MIND”.  Yep, that’s right.  They didn’t want my son to fret about the goal he allowed, so the common yell is “Do Mai!”  Any time someone misses a goal or basket or hit in any game, or allows a goal, basket or hit, that is what the crowd shouts at their team.  Basically they’re saying “don’t worry about it – you’ll do better next time.”  It’s meant as form of support and solidarity with the players.

I hunted around and found a whole long list of these types of words, which I know I’ve mentioned before here.  Here’s the site I found, called “TELFtastic“.  Have fun with it!

But trust me, this is not the last time I’m mentioning this.  As a writer and language aficionado, I find the whole phenomenon of mixing Japanese and English to be fascinating.  Enjoy!

Teaching As A Writer – A New Adventure

This week I have been doing a completely different type of writing than usual.  Usually my work involves stories and characters, plot and scenes.  This week, however, I have been working on curricula, goals, outcomes and syllabi.  Yep, it’s that time of year again: back to school.  Here at Chez Weinstein, it’s not just the kids going back, but also me; I am headed back into the classroom, somewhere I haven’t been in four years.  As I have been struggling through this week of preparations, I realized that some of the writing I am doing bears a startling resemblance to the writing I always do.

I will start every day at a small school called International Secondary School (ISS) teaching middle and high school English.  Two afternoons a week, I will teach at the Japan campus of Temple University.  I have taught at the university level many times – at George Mason University, George Washington University and Prince George’s Community College.  I have taught freshman composition, research writing, creative writing, upper level and lower level expository writing, and even basic writing. However, this is my first go at high school.

ISS is a private high school here in Japan, catering to English-speakers only.  There is ESL support, but in general, most of the kids should have native English skills.  Because it is a private school, it is not subject to state or federal oversight like any regular high school either in Japan or in the US.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have standards and best practices and all that; it just means that those standards, goals, outcomes and the like are not as set in stone and I am allowed much more creativity than I would be in a public high school.  For this I am grateful.  Under the tutelage of an excellent, young special education teacher who has been with the school for a few years, I have learned to adapt my skills and prepare/prepare for, my classroom.

I wrote the syllabi; I wrote the class descriptions; I wrote the learning-based outcomes I hoped to achieve with my students.  All of that took every ounce of creativity I had.  I realized that engaging these students will take my brain to a new level of thinking that my brain has heretofore not discovered.  I had to think about these abstract youngsters and how they are going to feel when they immerse themselves in my world of reading and writing.  I had to consider how I would make them into readers and writers – and to think of themselves as readers and writers.  These kids – they are going to become my characters.  I am going to write them into a story and move the narrative through the school year until they emerge from the high action of the text and through the denouement of the school year in June.

What an adventure.