von Sternberg's 'Morocco' in Japan?

Mark Nornes amnornes
Sat Oct 4 19:31:47 EDT 2003

This certainly was shown in the 1930s. I don't have the date handy, but 
it was very shortly after the US premiere. I know because it is often 
remembered as the first Japanese film ever subtitled. I've written 
about this in an article entitled "For an Abusive Subtitling" in Film 
Quarterly (a new and improved version of this will appear in the new 
edition of the  Routledge Translation Studies Reader this year). I'll 
include some quotes below.

I'm dying to get a hold of a print of this to check out the Japanese 


However, the method that became standard operating procedure was the 
superimposed (sub)title--in parentheses because they were not always at 
the bottom of the frame. Within a year or two of the talkie's public 
appearance, the major studios brought translators to New York to 
subtitle the latest films. This included Shimizu Shunji and Tamura 
Yukihiko, who conducted the first translation with film subtitles in 
Japanese. The film was von Sternberg's Morocco, and this is Tamura's 
description of the process:

First of all, the first problem we encountered was whether to use 
vertical or horizontal lines. For this, I performed various 
experiments. In the case of vertical lines, three-and-a-half feet of 
film were required to read one line with 12 characters. However, we 
found that if we printed the same line horizontally it would be 
impossible to read without five or more feet. Besides the decision to 
print vertically, we had to decide to put the subtitle on the right or 
left side. It was impossible to settle on a position. We'd put them on 
the right to avoid covering something on the left and vice versa. So we 
watched previews and investigated the problem scene by scene.... About 
30 cards per reel was the limit. We were careful to avoid showing the 
embarrassing sight of titles from one scene running over into the next. 
(Tanaka, 1980, 207)


Shimizu Shunji recently acquired the ken'etsu daihon of Morocco. His 
analysis is predictably superficial, but provides a useful starting 
point for exploring the real history of Japanese subtitles. Shimizu 
counts 297 subtitles in Tamura's version. Tamura's original translation 
used only 234, but after seeing a test print he felt the extra 63 
titles were necessary. (9) Throughout his books, Shimizu often notes 
that before the war subtitlers used somewhere between a half and a 
third of the subtitles used today. With Morocco's ken'etsu daihon in 
hand, he attempts to find the difference. First, he parses the scenario 
according to today's standards and decides his own count would come to 
492. Then he counts Kikuji Hiroshi's postwar subbing of the film, which 
uses 491. Finally, he compares Kikuji's and Tamura's actual 
translations, concluding that outside of a few old kanji, excessively 
long subtitles, and Tamura's choice not to translate Dietrich's songs, 
there is no significant difference.

I find this a rather startling conclusion. Putting the actual 
translation of words aside for the moment, the difference between 297 
and 492 strongly suggests we are dealing with two very dissimilar 
conceptions of translation. Shimizu was pursuing the wrong questions. 
Rather than wondering about the phrasing of individual titles, he 
should have been asking, "If Tamura chose to subtitle only half of the 
utterances, then what exactly was he translating? What was the object 
of translation?"


The conception of translation in the talkie period circulated between 
two poles, between a sense-for-sense hermeneutic search for, and 
transmission of, meaning, and a curious form of translation of 
language's material qualities (or a choice not to translate underpinned 
by the same values). The reason for this indeterminacy lies in the 
historical moment. We can detect as much from an article about the 
subtitling of Morocco which Tamura published ten days before the film's 
public release: "This time, there was the fear that with too few 
subtitles, the meaning would not come through. At least, I thought that 
it was necessary to use the same number of titles as silent movies. 
Spanish and Portuguese subtitles used far too many subtitles, more than 
400 subtitles for one film. However, because Japanese audiences are 
sensitive to the feelings of films, I believed it was unnecessary to 
attach more than 30 subtitles per reel." (Tamura, 1931) This is an 
approach to translation that relies on a conception of cinema grounded 
in the silent era.

On Saturday, October 4, 2003, at 12:28  PM, j.izbicki at att.net wrote:

> I am trying to find out if von Sternberg's 1930 film 'Morocco' starring
> Marlene Dietrich played in Japan in the 1930s and/or during the Allied
> occupation sometime between 1945 and 1949.  It probably was 
> distributed at
> some point but can anyone refer me to clear evidence as to when and 
> where it
> might have shown?
> Thanks,
> Joanne
> j.izbicki at att.net
> OR
> jizbicki at ithaca.net

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