Japanese-English Subtitling Workshop #1

The Japan Association of Conference Interpreters collaborated with Rikkyo University to provide a special workshop (internship program from Nov. 2021 to Jan. 2022) on Japanese-English subtitling, taught by Jonathan M. Hall to Robert Denton Williams. The following assignment was given after a 3-hour lecture on the basics of subtitling.

First assignment and Denton’s translation

Instructor’s Comments

For his first assignment, Denton submitted carefully crafted dialogue for a fictive job re-translating dialogue from Takita Yojiro’s film Departures (Okuribito おくりびと). This overtly sentimental 2008 film went on to win numerous awards in Japan and overseas, garnering Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 US Academy Awards. It remains popular in overseas markets today. In it, Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is an unsuccessful cellist who returns to his Yamagata roots, where he responds to a help-wanted advertisement offering work as a “departures” assistant. Thinking the position must be for a travel agency, Daigo soon finds himself under the tutelage of Sasaki (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki), the sanguine company president of a unique business. Following the commands of this gruff master of tradition, Daigo learns how to prepare deceased bodies for cremation in traditional encoffining ceremonies that take place in the presence of the bereaved family. Denton’s homework asked him to prepare a fresh translation for a scene that is shown at the film’s opening and then further developed midway through the film. In it, Daigo takes on the duty of preparing the body of a trans woman for encoffining. When surprised by the discovery of male genitalia on the corpse, he turns to his boss to navigate the situation. I chose this assignment given Denton’s interest and expertise in questions of gendered representation in Japanese moving image culture. The scene also speaks to mainstream representation of trans identities, usually as side or supporting characters.

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and effort Denton put into his assignment. Denton was attuned to vocabulary usage in Japanese. I also appreciated his fluid English, which, at the individual sentence level, never sounded like a translation. Denton’s translation of the male member as something extra added a humor and almost flippancy to the scene, which complemented its seriousness greatly. See Lines 14 & 15.  Denton’s aptitude for visual translation suggests great future potential.

In aggregate, however, there were some issues common with beginning visual translators. In our live discussion of his work, I emphasized the following four areas: 1) translating for scene, not merely for line, 2) creating well-defined character voices for characters as needed, 3) concision, and 4) enabling, not foreclosing, spectator interpretation.  This week, my attention in Denton’s homework went to character and scene development, which are both vital, especially in what is the opening scene of the film—a scene taken from a midway point in the story. Departures follows a common narrative structure, hardly exclusive to Japanese cinema, whereby the older, knowledgeable master (here, of the art of encoffinment) instructs a new (frequently male) apprentice in the tradition and imparts a wisdom far beyond mere procedural technique.  Although not fully accepting of his gift for this new career, Daigo clearly wants to master the skill of encoffining. We see Daigo accepting his mentor’s offer for him to assume the role of officiant of the ceremony. Denton’s translation was suitably colloquial, mixing more formal expressions for the family with more direct communication with his boss. But, it lacked the difference in vocabulary and expression that would alert the audience to perhaps the key relationship in the film: that between teacher and student, master and apprentice. This was an area where Denton’s “careful” translation (i.e. one too focused on vocabulary choices and natural-sounding English at the sentence level) ended up eclipsing the tone of the speakers and the importance of the scene. In this case, Denton’s translation of the gruff boss’s lines could have foregrounded more the laconic, but authoritative style. See Lines 7 & 8, for example.

Concision is also important. Concision is not the same as brevity. I consider concision the quality whereby we feel each word is actively selected to contribute to the scene. After reducing a translation to its most core element, I then add back words deliberately so that each and every one of them contributes to the line of dialogue. In other words, while preserving naturalness of English expression, we want to avoid unnecessary wordiness. This is because the spectator exerts themself to read the text within a narrow frame of time. Concision makes sure that effort is worthwhile, and it applies equally to lines of short and long duration. See Lines 1, 3, 5, 9, 10, 16, 24, and 35 for example.

The film relies on mainstream curiosity about trans bodies as a narrative hook. The opening scene ends midway as Tomeo, the trans character, is prepared for the coffin. Just then, the film’s title appears on screen. Yet, at the same time as the film makes a covered spectacle of the trans body, it also offers a liberal tone. Just as in other scenes, the beauty of the encoffining ceremony is capable of warming hardened hearts, or so the film claims. For this reason, we need to be careful in how we translate the father’s transphobia. Of course, we want to be wary of overinterpreting: the father understands feminine expression as kakkō or mere appearance. In the return to the scene midway through the film, we see Tomeo’s father overcoming the hostility towards his trans daughter and recognizing his own “child” through her smiling face (prepared with female cosmetics.) This acceptance contrasts with the proudly held image of his “son” in Tomeo’s male-coded school uniform with which we began the scene. Is it possible there is some retroactively acceptance of Tomeo as his daughter? Might Denton’s translation of ko as son foreclose, to some extent, a liberal interpretation of the father’s shift of heart following his daughter’s suicide? See Line 40-43.

There were several other areas where Denton’s translation may have unintended effects. Denton’s translation of “seed” for tane was plausible, but I am concerned it veers too much towards ribald humor or even towards horror. Since this is the opening scene, the vocabulary’s signaling of genre is very important. During our live class, Denton suggested both gene and chromosome as alternatives. We might risk the salt-of-the-earth portrayal of the old, country couple, Tomeo’s parents, with these choices. But chromosome would signal the “trans” topic more. I guess it’s just too discordant with the fantasy of the countryside the film wants to show. Choices must be made.

Denton’s Reaction

My first subtitling assignment with Professor Hall proved extremely useful in shaping how I approach the translation process of audiovisual works, and I will surely be able to apply what I have learned in future assignments.  Specifically, I can identify three major concepts to always consider (all of which overlap those outlined by Professor Hall above): (1) the voices of characters, (2) concision in rendering, and (3) the reflection of the entire work in each translated segment.  Additionally, my review discussion with Professor Hall encouraged me to identify my own shortcomings in this translation assignment and to reconsider how I would re-translate certain renderings, particularly those regarding gender.  Even though I had thought that I had carefully considered how to render Tomeo’s gender from the standpoints of various characters, confronting the three points above—character voice, concision, and the overall work—showed me how I would retranslate dialogue, particularly coming from Tomeo’s father.

First, regarding character voice, I learned that I need to make each character’s personality more distinct without apprehension.  As I translated initially, I tried to make my renderings sound as natural as possible by taking the Japanese and rendering the sense as opposed to word-for-word translations.  Inevitably this called upon my own experiences witnessing funerals and related media, which ultimately caused my renderings to sound all like the same voice—that of my own.  In order to avoid using too much of my own voice, I should have more closely considered the personality of each character, particularly that of Sasaki, Daigo, and their master-apprentice relationship.  Through reflection I realize that I most likely watered-down the characters’ respective personalities out of fear of making them sound too exaggerated or hackneyed.  I did not want to create the personality of a gruff, calloused older gentleman that would somehow disrespect Sasaki’s original character, but ironically I ended up making him sound too polite (see lines 2 and 16).  As a result, moving forward I am determined to capture the voice of each character from the start, and dial it back if necessary as I check my work.

Next, I need to consider concision in translating.  The best piece of advice I received this week from Professor Hall was that I should try to translate with the most bare-bones rendering first, and then add the necessary layers onto it with more consideration.  I find that I can apply this advice not only to subtitling but also to my verbose writing-style in general.  The advice that concision is not the same as brevity also made me recall advice from my Master’s thesis advisor, who suggested that I try to treat writing like fashion and add the most complimentary elements to the overall garment without overdoing it.  These analogies resonate with me in ways which I am sure will only improve my practice moving forward.  I want to consider the duress of the audience and render translations in concise ways to ease their reading/watching experience and increase their captivation in the work.  Doing so will encompass all of the necessary information and tones and maximize the power of each segment.  A simple example is in Line 3, where “How do you know that?” could have been rendered as “How can you tell?”  The latter is less choppy, equally if not more natural, and overall concise.

Finally, the subtitling concept that will require the most consideration and practice on my part is that of translating for the entire work with each rendering.  Professor Hall reflected on this as “translating for the scene,” and I extrapolate here to the entire work because I have realized through this assignment the importance of viewing and considering the entire film with care even when only translating a single scene.  During this week’s assignment, I ended up translating Tomeo’s father as still unaccepting of Tomeo’s identity as a transgender woman.  However, if I had considered the entire film, in which multiple encoffinments end in cathartic experiences for the family members of the departed, then I would have been more likely to have translated Tomeo’s father as finally accepting of her identity.  Therefore, if I were to re-translate this scene, I would use the term “child” in Lines 42 and 43 instead of “boy.”  Furthermore, as Professor Hall pointed out, the context of this scene as the opening scene sets the stage as an example of the power of the encoffinment ceremonies.  In other words, to not include this context of the scene and the movie as a whole is to create a translation that lives in a less impactful vacuum.  Therefore, moving forward in my studies and practice I am determined to really think beyond the smaller units of source text and to try to encompass as much thematic context as possible.

This week provided me with excellent foundational steps for improving how I approach translations, no matter how short.  I think that there is an interesting duality between considering as much context as comprehensively as possible while simultaneously rendering it all concisely.  However, I think it this very concept which makes translation such an awe-inspiring skill and art.  I look forward to considering each character’s voice and personality, the choices of words I use, and the overall scenes and films as I continue my assignments with Professor Hall.

Instructor: Jonathan M. Hall

Jonathan M. Hall is a Japanese-English media translator and interpreter. He also works as a curator in diverse Asian cinema contexts, including the China Onscreen Biennial. With two decades of experience as a Japanese-English translator focusing on cinema and the arts, Hall has subtitled numerous films and been a part of a wide range of projects in visual translation.  Since 2010, Hall has served as a guest instructor at Japan Visual Media Translation Academy (JVTA) in both its Los Angeles and Tokyo schools, stressing the importance of visual literacy for effective film subtitle translation. In 2016, he received the Wig Distinguished Professor Award for Excellence in Teaching at Pomona College. Hall has taught previously at the University of Chicago, the University of California Irvine, the University of California Berkeley, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

Student: Robert Denton Williams (he/they/she)

Denton Williams has been working in Japan since 2015. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, he moved to Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture, where he taught English as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with the JET Program for three years. In 2018 he moved to Tokyo to begin his research and Master’s studies in Translation
and Interpreting at Rikkyo University.

Denton has engaged in a variety of translation and interpreting freelance opportunities. He helped create live subtitles during Huffpost Japan’s video broadcast with Taiwanese Digital Prime Minister, Audrey Tang, in 2020. He has also worked with the General Incorporated Medical Interpreting Association of Japan for two years, editing scripts and evaluating the interpreting performances of examinees.

While his translation experiences cross a variety of genres, Denton hopes to explore new opportunities in creative fields, such as entertainment and media. He is also devoted to the translation of LGBTQIA contents, and his Master’s thesis explores transgender representation in the act of subtitling. Lastly, Denton is determined to continue developing
translation technology skills such as using subtitling software, CAT tools, and MT programs. Denton’s languages for translation and interpreting include English “A,” and Japanese “B.”