How not to interpret

I loved the film Lost in Translation, and in particular (for obvious reasons), the scene where they shoot the commercial, with the interpreter helping the American actor and the Japanese director to communicate. Or is she? Here is the translation of the whole dialogue.
DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.
DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in "Casablanca," saying, "Cheers to you guys,"* Suntory time!
INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
BOB: That’s all he said?
INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.
BOB: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?
INTERPRETER (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you don’t mind.
DIRECTOR (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese): Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you understand?
INTERPRETER (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity.
BOB: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
DIRECTOR: What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly, tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important! Don’t forget.
INTERPRETER (in English, to Bob): Like an old friend, and into the camera.
DIRECTOR: You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?
DIRECTOR: O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! (Then in a very male form of Japanese, like a father speaking to a wayward child) Don’t try to fool me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you even understand what we are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive. The sound of the words is important. It’s an expensive drink. This is No. 1. Now do it again, and you have to feel that this is exclusive. O.K.? This is not an
everyday whiskey you know.
INTERPRETER: Could you do it slower and ?
DIRECTOR: With more ecstatic emotion.
INTERPRETER: More intensity.
DIRECTOR (in English): Suntory time! Roll.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you.

What I like in this scene is that what the director says isn’t subtitled, so unless you speak Japanese, you’ll be watching it from Bob’s point of view. As an interpreter watching another interpreter at work, it was very interesting to be in that position for once. This scene makes it plain how uncomfortable it is when the person who’s meant to facilitate your understanding of a situation doesn’t quite come up with the goods. She fails on several levels: first and foremost, she hardly conveys any of what the director says, and then she doesn’t seem to be able to adapt her language level to the director’s or Bob’s.
In this film about feeling lost and lonely, it is the ultimate irony that the one person who is there to help you understand your surroundings only makes things worse by not doing her job properly.
*For an interesting discussion on whether this is the right translation, see this entry on Transblawg.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:04+00:00 April 5th, 2004|Interpreting|1 Comment

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

One Comment

  1. céline April 5, 2004 at 8:58 pm

    [article edited so comments removed]

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