Sato Makoto & Abusive Subtitling

Mark Nornes amnornes at
Tue Jun 10 12:40:03 EDT 2008

Sato Makoto has been on my mind of late. I presented Living on the  
River Agano and Memories of Agano at Berkeley this spring. Last week  
in China, the director of the Nyon Visions Du Réel documentary  
festival gave me last year's catalog and I noticed that they had  
dedicated the festival to Makoto after his tragic death. And, finally,  
I spent several weeks in April tweeking the subtitles for three of his  
films as they were being digitized for DVD. Yesterday, the DVD's  
arrived in my mailbox.

Siglo, producer of most of the films, has just released a Sato Makoto  
DVD Box. It's a six-disc set with all of his major films except the  
Said film. The sixth disc has two shorts and some extras. The discs  
can be ordered separately as well.

This is a good opportunity to see Sato's work, if you haven't already,  
or acquire it for your library. But I wanted to bring this set to your  
attention for another reason. I know some of you are aware of my  
article "Toward an Abusive Subtitling" or its dismantled and expanded  
version in Cinema Babel. As a matter of fact, I developed these ideas  
about subtitling through working with Makoto. It's a nice example of  
theorization and practice being inextricably linked. Upon the  
publishing of Siglo's DVD Box, I thought I was write about subtitling  
with Sato and invite you to pick up the discs. It's so nice to see  
subtitled, Region ALL DVDs coming out of Japan!

Living on the River Agano (1992) was the second film I attempted to  
subtitle, and it was a harrowing introduction to the problem of  
dialect. As anyone who has seen the film can attest, the Niigata-ben  
is incredible. Wonderfully inpenetrable for most of the film, which is  
why it was originally subtitled in Japanese. When I translated the  
film, I felt a tension between the anonymous English demanded by  
conventional subtitling practice and the beauty of the Niigata-ben. It  
was so central to the texture of the film, that the thought of erasing  
it completely was unbearable. I tried writing marked English, but  
recognized why subtitlers avoid this strategy; it was a bit jarring,  
and too quickly evoked the American south. I compromised—with myself  
and with SOP—by using more contractions than usual and by  
transliterating and preserving the onomatopoetic phrases so many  
people were using: zafuu-zafuu, to describe the throwing of fishing  
nets, for example.

(The subtitles on the disc have been revised, but for the better. For  
the original translation, I was given only the Japanese subtitles  
which were themselves incomplete and just enough for speakers of  
standard Japanese to understand the film. Now I had the published  
script, and Akamatsu Ryuta of the translation house Passo Passo helped  
me figure out the many tough parts.)

A few years later, Makoto asked me to do the subtitles for Mahiru no  
hoshi/Artists in Wonderland (1998). My essay "Toward an Abusive  
Subtitling" was in peer review at Film Quarterly, and so I accepted  
his invitation wondering how these new ideas would translate into  
practice.  Artists in Wonderland is about mentally handicapped  
artists. As you might expect, their speech is quirky. Sometimes it  
doesn't make sense. It's often montage-like. And sometimes it's  
individually distinct, as with one artist who constantly repeated  
things over and over and over and over again. Standard subtitles would  
probably give you the sense of their speech acts, but perhaps not the  
flavor. For instance, even if someone repeated a phrase five times,  
they would use only one subtitle with one complete sentence. Makoto  
and I discussed this at length, and I told him about my article. We  
decided that the subtitles should be in tune with each artist's  
personality—using various strategies like repetition and unusual  
punctuation—and were abusive in this sense. It could be that few  
people noticed the difference, but no doubt it did make a difference.  
We liked the results very much.

There's also one moment where the abuse was graphic. One of the  
artists wrote countless notes to a female social worker he was  
sexually obsessed with. He made an installation with a video  
confession, and plastered the walls with his notes. They fill the  
screen. For that moment, Makoto and I decided to plaster the screen  
with subtitle as well:

The "sub"-title disappears just as the camera starts panning to reveal  
hundreds of these notes. We thought this was also very nice, and I'm  
grateful that Siglo and Passo Passo went the extra mile to preserve  
this in the new DVD subs.

Finally, Makoto asked me to do the subtitles for his sequel to Living  
on the River Agano. Entitled Memories of Agano (2004), I think it's  
the work of a great documentary filmmaker at the peak of his powers.  
Its success relies completely on the first film; if you haven't seen  
Living on the River Agano, one would probably find it rough going.   
But this utter dependency on a previous work, which it references in  
the most complex of ways, is a good thing I think. Since his debut  
Makoto had written forcefully on the work of artists like Jonas Mekas,  
Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Chris Marker. The experiments of this film with  
montage and temporality show the fruits of this contact with other  
great filmmakers.

And so does his  approach to language. For this film, he decided NOT  
to use Japanese subtitles. This meant that if you weren't from Niigata  
or thereabouts, you were stuck with semi-comprehension. Most people  
understood only a fraction of the film. It was a daring move, and also  
a controversial one. I vividly remember the press screening when all  
these critics left the theater scratching their heads and chuckling,  
"Did you understand anything??!?"

I thought it was brilliant, and was flabbergasted when he asked me to  
do the English version. How does one translate a film you're not  
supposed to transparently understand? If you put standard subtitles,  
it would be an experience of language close to that of Niigata-ben  
speakers. But upon talking to Makoto, it was clear that the "subject  
position" he built into the film was outside Niigata. You were  
supposed to struggle with comprehension. You invited to hear the  
language as music.

I told him I thought it would possible to do something interesting to  
the degree that the subtitles were thoroughly abusive. By this point  
in his career he was quite adventurous and happy to experiment. So I  
polled various Japanese spectators to find out what exactly they  
understood, scene-by-scene. And then I used this as my "script,"  
writing fragmentary subtitles with incomplete sentences, strange  
punctuation, and even parenthetical asides—except those scenes in  
standard Japanese, which got standard subtitles.

Makoto half-joked that the English subtitled version was better than  
the original, half-joking because the theory behind the subs  
dovetailed so cleanly with his conception of the film. Siglo's new DVD  
has transfers of both the original unsubtitled Niigata-ben film and  
the English-subtitled 16mm print. Take your pick. He would have wanted  
you to.

So I invite you to pick up the Sato Box, and not just for the  
subtitles. They are wonderful films from a director we will miss very,  
very much.


PS: For those interested in reading my essay, the book is best. But  
here is the reference to the essay and the translations and reprint  
that include slight but significant theoretical revisions to the  

“Toward an Abusive Subtitling: Illuminating Cinema’s Apparatus of  
Translation,” Film Quarterly 52.3 (Spring 1999): 17-34. Revised and  
reprinted in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti  
(London: Routledge, 2004), 447-468. Reprinted in German as “Ein  
Pladoyer fur den Mibbrauch von Untertiteln,” trans. Gabriele Pauer, in  
Minikomi 61 (March 2001): 9-18. Reprinted in Japanese as “Akutai-teki  
Jimaku no Tame Ni,” trans. Yamamoto Naoki, in Gengo Bunka 22 (2005):  

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