How amazing scenes get lost in translation

Friday night with nothing to do. Looking at the telly guide I notice that it’s on. What you say? IT! IT is on! The movie that always gets me to blub like a tit. Brokeback Mountain. Japanese telly, you’ve outdone yourself this time! So Friday night and there I sat. Flannel pyjamas, a bowl of home baked brownies, a glass of gin, and the approaching, most famous line in the film. Fighting back tears, Jake Gyllenhal frustratedly says, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” I let my quivering lips move to the unspoken words expecting the screen to whisper in the blanks. But no. F$%# you, says the universe. I’m going to randomly switch to the dubbed version. What I heard back in Japanese was, “I desire to know the method of stopping.” Eyebrows were cocked… … … THAT WAS SSSSSSHIIIIIIIIIIIIT! On come the lights, brownies are wrapped and put in the fridge, and I storm off to listen to some Jamie Cullum to recover from the deception.

For you see, translation is my trade and I love every eye haemorrhaging moment of it. That having been said, some days I feel like finding the nearest Japanese person and devouring their brain to absorb their nectareous knowledge of their seemingly impenetrable language. So what is my idea of a good translation? I’m glad you asked.

How do you say I love you in Japanese? While dressed in a horrendously uncomfortable costume from a cartoon known by exactly 20 people, an Anime fanatic will shriek, “Daisuki!” because he is an expert on Japan.Your 40 year old boss who needs to translate his website into Latvian and CBF to fork out money for a translator will Google Translate the aforementioned phrase into, “Watashi wa anata o aishiteimasu.” However, if you were the Lord Almighty of Japanese Literature, Soseki Natsume, then you might come up with something amazing like “Tsuki ga kirei desu ne.” (Isn’t the moon beautiful?). This is my idea of perfection. There is not a whiff of unnaturalness; it makes me sit back in my chair, take off my glasses, and grin as I heave a sigh of satisfaction. Oh. My. Yes. For you see, pointing out something menial to allow maximum time for imagining wistful profile shots reads much more romantically in Japanese literature. Whippersnappers might have a different point of view, though.

Despite this, I do enjoy myself a horrendous translation every now and then. Why? Oh, silly. It’s because I see my ego inflate before my very eyes. My favourite would have to be one of the most consternating, direct translations. The famous Casablanca quote. You know, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!”. In Japanese it was directly translated as “Kimi no hitomi ni kanpai!” (Cheers to your pupils!). Is this another form of making menial, indirect reference to set the mood for romance just like with the moon-talk? No. It’s just wrong, dear.

I’m very much of the school of thought that naturalness should reign supreme over faithfulness to the original. To give you an example, I recently read a modern day translation of King Lear. In the translation I read the scene where Gloucester is brutally tortured by Regan. In the updated version it read something like, “You vicious bitch!”. Surely the original wasn’t this colourful! As I pored over the Shakespearean original on my Kindle I found that the clever translator chap had updated the original line, “Naughty lady!”. At the time of Shakespeare this was about as acid tongued as you could get, but for a man in this day and age to scream through blood spurting and bones crunching “Oh! You naughty lady!”… Well, it just doesn’t seem to match the carnage. Liberties were taken, but they paid off. Again, many satisfied sighs were heaved and you can see my point. To keep the original is pointless in this modern revamp.

Each translation is unique. Sometimes I settle to make a translation sound more natural, but sometimes natural isn’t what one is aiming for. Maybe you want a smidgeon of the unnatural to give foreign flavour to a story set in an exotic location. I have much more to talk about, but for today I’ll leave the discussion here because I know “the method of stopping”.

By Blair



  1. At first when you write: “IT is on!” I thought the Stephen King horror movie (quite funny, really), haha. Because each language is unique to culture, translation can get really wonky. I find each language has a lot of words that does not have an English equivalent, and vice versa; it really shows the diversity of cultures we have in the world.

  2. Again, I promise I’ll get better at replying more promptly. No, I would never watch “It”. That film has forever tainted my childhood and thoroughly ruined carnivals for me. Absolutely with you on the wonky translations. However, that’s not to say that translated texts/films are not worth anything. Finding those little gems that cannot be translated is fascinating for me. The fact that something can be so culture specific that it’s impossible to explain with simply words shows linguistics’ prowess and weakness at the same time. Mostly, it’s just really really funny to see what kinds of wobbly translations come about, though.

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