Saturday, April 21, 2018

Days of translating poorly

Remember that great meme, one of the original memes, All Your Base Are Belong to Us? It was the humorously poor English translation of video game dialogue written originally in another language, and if you've never seen it, well:

I was getting AYBABTU flashbacks while watching Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild last night.

When the film was released in 1990 in Hong Kong (and elsewhere around the world the next year), it was not yet the work of an internationally celebrated director. Wong had made only one previous film, 1988's As Tears Go By, and Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and The Grandmaster all still lay on the horizon.

So it should be no surprise that the subtitles seem like they were written by someone who was trying to do a racist impression of a Chinese person.

Of course, it's much more innocent than that. Likely the person who did these subtitles was trying their best, perhaps literally translating when he or she should have translated colloquially. But few of the subtitles are actually grammatically correct in English, and in many other instances where they are grammatically correct, they're just not phrased the way a western person would phrase them.

That's not the only example of shoddy subtitle work, though. The length of time the subtitles stay on the screen is often highly problematic as well, as sentences containing six to ten words sometimes stay up for less than two seconds. This is necessary when the dialogue is coming out in a rapid stream, but the words were disappearing even in situations where a thoughtful pause came before the next spoken words.

Examples are probably beside the point, but after a while, I couldn't stop jotting them down. Here are some:

"You want a revenge."

"Please don't dessert me."

"May I have a look of your house."

"He gets my phone number."

"Don't stand on my way."

"It's bored to stay in one place for a long time."

"I owe you this meal. I'll be the banker next time."

I think that last one is my favorite. It's the most Base Belongingest.

Listing any more examples would start to blur the line between someone criticizing a racist impression of a Chinese person, and actually making such an impression, if it has not already. But you get the picture.

If Days of Being Wild were just some one-off from a director who never made anything again, I might expect the subtitles to be in any form, just as likely to be worthy of wisecracks from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew as to read coherently. But Wong is a major director, and the reason I chose this movie on a night I was sick with an earache is because I'd heard it discussed in glowing terms. (And because it was only 90 minutes, though in retrospect I would have chosen something that qualified as comfort food, and was in English.)

The answer, of course -- though I had to post in my Flickcharters group on Facebook in order to find it -- is that this is one of several versions of Days of Being Wild in existence. It doesn't yet have a Criterion release, despite several convincing fan mock-ups of Criterion posters, but commenters on my post said they'd seen translations of the Chinese that were unremarkable at worst. The streaming service on which I watched the movie, Stan, just doesn't have access to these other versions, or perhaps doesn't realize that it plucked an inferior version from its available resources. (It would probably be useful if I understood a bit better the logistics involved in streaming licensing, but I won't pretend to.)

The interesting thing is that this version of Days actually does do something quite well in its translation, something I wish other films did more. It translates the money. When money is spoken of in the movie, it's not listed in Yuan, but rather, in USD, so you know the total that's actually at stake. Sure, that's good for me as an American, but the U.S. dollar is the most internationally known currency as well, so if you're going to select just one currency, might as well be the dollar. It even mentions it in a rather shrewd way, as "USD" appears in the subtitles after the first mention of money, then doesn't for a while, then does again, just to remind us in case we've forgotten, kind of like the chyron appearing under the picture of a documentary subject at some point later in the movie, just so we don't forget who we've been interviewing.

I suppose it's a reality that at least two sets of English subtitles might exist for any given movie, to say nothing of the sets of subtitles for the world's other 20 most prominent languages. But I kind of feel like once a set of subtitles that's considered the definitive version comes into existence, it should suppress all other available subtitles -- something that's a lot easier said than done, of course. I mean, if someone were really concerned about it, they could remove this inferior copy of Days of Being Wild from the rotation, though perhaps that was the reason Stan was able to license it in the first place, because it costs less than the version where the translator actually understood how people speak English.

And I suppose there's also value to viewing something as an artifact of its time. If I got only the corrected version of this movie, I might not have the appreciation of how English-speaking audiences originally experienced it. Apparently, they were not as thrown by it as I was, as they surely helped elevate the movie to its place of respect in the Wong canon. Or, they were more accustomed to films being translated poorly than I am, as I cannot think of another instance of watching a movie that had worse than very minor spelling and grammatical errors.

The problem is that I have difficulty knowing how much I really like this movie because of the circumstances of my viewing. Evidently it did become a distraction for me, else I wouldn't have written this whole post.

I do think that it was a bit of a poor bet for me in the first place, as I'm not a fan of the third movie in the informal thematic trilogy that began with this movie, 2046, and I highly respect but still don't probably love In the Mood for Love, the trilogy's middle film. I don't tend to love films where men and women torment each other while lying around in tank tops around smoke-filled flophouses, which is a not totally inaccurate description of much of the first half of this film, and is why for a long time I bristled at the early films of Jim Jarmusch. So Days of Being Wild may never have been totally my thing, but the subtitles certainly didn't help.

Of course, any time you watch a film while suffering from a painful earache, you should not expect it to become your favorite.

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