Interview series with Japan’s most renowned translator of foreign films and interpreter for Hollywood stars, Natsuko Toda
TJ: Do different directors have different requirements for translating the subtitles of their movies? Can you think of any unique requests you’ve had, such as maybe having to sit down with a director and going over the subtitling face-to-face?
Toda: No, they have no time and they don’t care about Japan so much. Of course, Japan is a big market, but they don’t pay attention to subtitling. For “The Color Purple,” Spielberg asked me to reflect African-American English from the South in the subtitles. However, this is impossible. If I use grammatically wrong expressions, the audience thinks it’s a subtitling mistake. Also, it makes no sense and the audience cannot understand the story. I explained this to him and he understood, but it was a rare case. I have never gone over subtitling face- to-face with a director.
TJ: Wasn’t Shunji Shimizu asked to submit a translation of Japanese subtitles back into English?
Toda: Some directors do ask that. The most extreme director was Stanley Kubrick. He asked for the Japanese subtitles to be translated back into English every time, but it’s unreasonable. Japanese subtitles are restricted according to the number of characters, so if you translate them back into English it’s never the same. He didn’t understand the art of translation and complained it was not the same as the original. I had no words to convince him and there are some directors like that. I think they don’t under- stand other languages, especially Japanese. I try to keep my distance from them.
TJ: What was the most difficult movie for you to subtitle and why?
TODA: They are all difficult in many ways. B movies or C movies are difficult because the plots are no good. Once they are translated, inconsistencies become more apparent. The audience wonders where the character is when a character who was in the movie before disappeared, etc. Subtitles cannot cover up those kinds of flaws. Also, it is time-consuming to translate things I’m not familiar with like, for example, movies about Wall Street. Since I’m a complete stranger
to the stock market, I need to ask advisors about technical terms. So movies about such things as the stock exchange, doctors or space engineering are difficult. However, movies are usually produced for ordinary people and philosophically difficult-to-understand movies generally don’t exist. With the exception
of avant-garde films, normal movies are easy to understand for the general audience so we can deal with them.
TJ: Tell us about the ending of “Apocalypse Now.” It is said to be difficult to understand?
TODA: It’s true that the original version was hardly understood by most people because it’s nothing but T.S. Eliot’s poetry. His poet- Natusko Toda is the most renowned translator of foreign films in Japan, single handedly creating the subtitles for major Hollywood movies and serving as an interpreter when foreign celebrities come to Japan for publicity. After graduating from Tsuda College in 1958, Natsuko Toda became a secretary for a life insurance company for
a year before leaving to find employment in the movie industry. She began working as an interpreter in a cinema company and became a pupil of experienced subtitles translator Shunji Shimizu. She made her debut as a translator in 1970 and has been responsible for subtitling over 1,000 movies since then.His poet
ry is so difficult, and people wondered why it was used in the conclusion of the movie. However, Coppola had run out of time to complete the movie. He worried about it for many years, and he finally modified the ending about 10 years ago. Some minor changes in editing made it clear and it clearly communicates
an anti-war message. He kept Eliot’s poetry, but inserted images of newspaper headlines, etc. I subtitled the revised version (the revision was made to the ending of the movie only) and now the movie is totally easy to understand. He worried so much about the first version when he had to rush to complete it. He even thought about killing himself because he wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, but he was forced by the movie company to submit it. Therefore,
he made the revision later.
TJ: Which movie did you enjoy translating the most and why?
TODA: I really like musicals, so I enjoy translating them.
TJ: Isn’t it difficult to translate songs?
TODA: Yes, it is a little different than translating straight dialogue and more difficult, but basically I like musicals.
TJ: What is the most important Japanese trait or tradition that you hope younger generations carry on into the future and why?
TODA: Everything. Traditions from the past 2,000 years have meaning even today in some ways. Traditions from many fields such as literature, art, etc. should be respected and carried on into the future. We throw away plenty of important things, and there is no way to undo it. So we have to do our best to
keep traditions alive. We have to maintain things carried on from ancestors such as language. Many beautiful Japanese words have increasingly disappeared. Since my job is deeply related with language, I worry about Japanese in particular. I know language is alive and evolves continuously, but it is wrong to throw away beautiful words. I think this is going too far. If you choose an international career, you still have to study Japanese traditions. Even if you are eloquent
in foreign languages, you would never be respected if you know nothing about your own country. tj
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