Sato Makoto & Abusive Subtitling

Jerry Turner jdturner1
Tue Jun 10 16:50:02 EDT 2008

I find translation studies truly interesting. It can really make or break my
experience reading or watching a work.

Recently, I read the two novels by Natsuo Kirino available in English, *Out*and
*Grotesque*. I found the translation in one to be really well done, meaning,
the characters actually conversed with each other how one would think. The
other novel . . . . Well, let's just say the dialog was a tad stiff.
I actually started to wonder how much of the translation fueled my dislike
for the latter.

On Tue, Jun 10, 2008 at 12:40 PM, Mark Nornes <amnornes at> wrote:

> 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 R?el 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.
> Markus
> 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 original:
> "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): 161-195.
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