21 March 2007

Damn that elegiac Bill-Murray-whoring-himself-in-Tokyo movie

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:05 pm

bomb.jpg…because if you could ever use the common phrase that is also the name of that movie as the clever title of your article or blog entry about the difficulties people sometimes have trying to express things in different languages, you sure can’t now. Oh no <a href="http://www.guardian.co More hints.uk/germany/article/0,,1781004,00.html”>wait, maybe you can.

I’ve got a novel coming out soon whose main character is a contract subtitler for an unnamed multilingual television network, so I was interested to read this imaginatively-titled article complaining that the modern trend of Hollywood studios outsourcing their subtitles to the sweatshops of India and Malaysia has had some unsatisfactory results:

Frustrated at seeing what are already low wages forced down still further, native subtitlers have begun compiling examples of the errors littering British and American movies released in foreign markets. And from their research, there certainly seems no shortage of cases where literal-minded or just plain odd translations have rendered Hollywood movies incomprehensible (or, if we’re going to be honest about this, more incomprehensible).

Unfortunately, the examples offered aren’t all that compelling. The Guild of Native Subtitlers reports that “Sir David Attenborough” has been translated as “Sherlock Holmes”, “an asteroid field” as “a steroid field” and “Vietnam vet” as “veterinarian from Vietnam”, but most of these mistakes are pretty understandable and their results quite comprehensible (except the Sherlock Holmes thing). Faced with such slim pickings, the journalist is reduced to speculation:

After all, would you want the pivotal line of Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on war, Full Metal Jacket, to have been given to you as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning – smells like Viscounts”? Or seen Some Like It Hot end with Jack Lemmon being told by his amorous suitor: “You nobody! You are a prefect?” And, as for Silence of the Lambs, surely no audience deserves to have Hannibal Lecter terrify Clarice Starling with the revelation that: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate some liver with him and then we had ice cream”?

This last one sounds more like what CleanFlicks and the other “movie sanitizers” used to do, but all of them are pretty much beside the point. Mysteriously, our guy ignores the only really funny one caught by the Disgrunted Subtitlers’ Union: a television broadcast in which “she died in a freak rugby accident” is rendered as “she died in a rugby match for people with deformities”.

But if Her Majesty’s Own Subtitlers can’t come up with a lot more examples than that, maybe it’s no wonder they’re losing work to India. Haven’t they heard of the Internet? It’s full of great stuff. A lot of it might be as flagrantly invented as Hannibal Lecter’s ice cream, but whatever. And they could easily have used some of these old favourites, which are actual subtitles from unspecified Hong Kong films:

I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.

Same old rules: no eyes, no groin.

Take my advice, or I’ll spank you without pants.

You always use violence. I should’ve ordered glutinous rice chicken.

You daring lousy guy.

Beat him out of recognizable shape!

Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

I know, but they’re fun. Back in the real world Subtitling Worldwide, a Dutch outfit whose English website adds another layer to the whole thing, offers its own salutary examples:

After all he put you through. This was said to someone who had been given a hard time by her boyfriend. Still the subtitle read, ‘after all, he connected you/put you through (by telephone)’.

Rest easy. A soldier was shot dead, another soldier closes his eyes and says, ‘Rest easy.’ The Dutch subtitle said: ‘Take a nice little break.’

A famous anachronism. In the Dutch subtitles of The Onedin Line one of the saddest/funniest mistakes ever was made. The series is situated in the pre-steamship era, a time when Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t been born yet. From a sailing ship a character surrounded by old rope, old sails and old wood, shouts to the shore, ‘I’ll call you.’ The subtitler, maybe focussed on different things entirely, maybe under time pressure, translated: ‘I’ll phone you.’

Send me a carbon copy. This again incredibly was translated as ‘send me a copy of coal’.

They mate for life (about swans which stick together their whole life). This is continually wrongly translated in subtitles, usually implying vehement or continuous copulating, which forms a comic contrast with the almost conventional nature of swans (and other wrongly treated birds).

Again, many of these are understandable mistakes. The trouble is, most professional subtitlers do know more or less what they’re doing. You have to venture into the black market to dig up the really astonishing attitudes towards captioning. It’s not always easy to imagine why these things exist at all, but we can all be thankful that they do. This guy gets a lot of mileage from a bootleg copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or indeed Gentlement) he picked up in Bangladesh:

The errors in subtitles start off as banal mistakes. A drunken sot’s remark to a visitor, “And I suppose you’re another traveler, got it in your head to sample the dark continent” becomes the reverse: “And I suppose you aren’t a traveler. Got it into your head to stuff from the dark continent.” Dire predictions of an unstable world, “Baying for blood, it’s a powder keg.” changes to “Being for blood, it’s a powder cake.” The Invisible Man’s jest, “I’m feeling a bit of draft in my nether regions” becomes, “I’m feeling a bit of drafted another agents.” Individual phrases also provide a challenge: “Thief” changes to “faith,” “boon” to “bone,” “sick note” to “sick knot,” “as patriotic” to “the speech” and “prerogative” to “perlocutive.”

Some sense can still be made of the subtitles, until utterly nonsensical constructions start to appear. “There is great unrest, countries set at each other’s throats” mutates to “That’s glad on rest, countries set each other throat.” “These attacks have every nation clamoring for the very weapons that assail them” changes to “And he attached every nations claiming very weapons to the sierra.” Sean Connery’s guttural growl after a fight, “Wasn’t there another one of these buggers?” becomes “You guys sent another this baggage?” Strangest of all, Quatermain’s boast, “I don’t know whether to regale with how I found King Solomon’s mines,” becomes “I know how to regret you with how I found to kick soloman’s mind.”

This other guy has an even better experience with a Chinese boot of Star War III: the Backstroke of the West, which has captions like:

You are a sacrifice article that I cut up rough now

He big in nothing important in good elephant

Giving first aid the already disheveled hair projection

I hope that these dreamses really can’t become

Send these troopseses only

They want to know him at fuck

I was just made by the Presbyterian Church

A line have beened distorted by the dark world

…and which pretty much closes the loop on the whole All Your Base thing pictured above.

6 Responses to “Damn that elegiac Bill-Murray-whoring-himself-in-Tokyo movie”

  1. Alastair Says:

    I remember from my youth being showed an Indonesian bootleg cassette of Cold Chisel (of all bloody things), complete with lyrics. I can still remember the line “Cheap wine and a three day growth” being listed as “Cheap wine and the free may go home”.

  2. Matt Rubinstein Says:

    That’s kind of admirable, but everyone knows it’s really “Cheap wine and a female goat”.

  3. Haddock Says:

    Yes, I know it’s pedantic, but the subtitlers’ guild spokesperson is confusing Full Metal Jacket with Apocalypse Now. So – not the best example of a potential mistake.

    By the way, I’ve done a few subtitles myself – live for the deaf – and have seen much worse and funnier mistakes, eg “he’s one of the best guys in the AFL” appearing as “he’s one of the best gays in the AFL.”

  4. Matt Rubinstein Says:

    Blistering barnacles, you’re right! In fairness that wasn’t the subtitlers’ spokesperson but the Guardian’s hack. But it does compound the general lameness of the argument. Thanks for the pick-up.

  5. ma.ttrubinste.in » Punch Says:

    […] fable of heartache and cream pies directed by Sotiris Dounoukos, who I most recently worked with on Paper & Sand—which, gratifyingly, is still screening around the place, including last week at the Bangkok […]

  6. ma.ttrubinste.in » Credit where it’s due Says:

    […] A while ago now we were talking about the attribution rules set down by the Writers Guild of America and ably summarised by the otherwise corrupt Wikipedia here. In one of those spooky coincidences that can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent designer, less than six months later I came across an actual example of what I was talking about. […]

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