On Translation

I like languages and art, and sometimes I think of the two as interrelated. That relationship can be really exciting when I watch something like Samurai X, but also speaks a word of caution somewhere in my head. In thinking over my misgivings on dubbing vs subtitling, I clearly take more of a “purist” approach, preferring subtitles so that I can get the director’s original intentions for sound. I keep to this preference for film from all countries, not just anime.

There is one arena where it’s a little more difficult to make that call, and that is Hong Kong cinema. Most movies out of Hong Kong would come out with dual Chinese/English subtitles. This is in an effort to hit a lot of the Chinese community regardless of dialect. There are also 2 sound tracks recorded for most films, Cantonese and Mandarin. It used to be that the soundtrack would be layered on top of the movie after filming, and actors that spoke both dialects would, and those who couldn’t had voice actors take their parts. This is why classic Bruce Lee movies sound equally halting in Mandarin and Cantonese, and why the movement and audio never quite match up. In that case neither soundtrack really sounds native to the piece, since the sound used in recording never was used. It also means that some actors who look great on screen but sound not so great get dubbed. You can hire the person based on looks. Many of Maggie Cheung’s early movies don’t actually use her real voice, in recent years Cecelia Cheung initially received the same treatment. Both women have that great sexy raspy voice that later became stylish, and all of a sudden movies started using their natural voices.

How does the artist get the message across? For a writer, words are the normal medium, film folks are usually using moving pictures and sound, artists paint, sculptors use various more tactile three-dimensional things, comics writers use sequential art with writing. Does one medium translate better than others? I love foreign film, I love anime, but I know that sometimes the meanings are lost on me because I don’t have the same cultural sensibilities as the target audience.

Can we just say that painters have it best? Their medium is purely visual, doesn’t necessarily have a particular speech, but the images portrayed have a time and place in the society of the person painting it (even if those in that society fail to see the connection). I love Roy Lichtenstein‘s work, but would it be so interesting if I didn’t have any knowledge of comics and soap operas, or if I had no understanding of pop art? Dali‘s work is a lot of fun, but again his surrealist view of things have lots of references to the society he lived in. I imagine someone from Bhutan would have less of a reaction to that kind of work. So maybe painters don’t have it best.

They don’t have the trap of words though. Words have connotations and power beyond their own humble beginnings, beyond their own dictionary explanations. It’s very difficult to translate, because while the literal meaning may be maintained, those nuances may go out the window. I know that I am a very visual person, and my metaphors tend to be a picture of some kind. My communication in Chinese would be hindered if I had a more literary thought process, because I am not sure I could convey all of that meaning otherwise. I often wonder how close my readings are when I read a Japanese novel, even something as contemporary as Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies.

I think comics have the potential to overcome a lot of barriers because any shortcomings in language translation might be caught through the visual aspect of things, but comics are their own language that many folks don’t really read. Comics don’t read very naturally to my parents because they aren’t used to reading comics, so even though they have the language set, and the visuals are pretty clear, the style is beyond the known for them, so it is difficult to read.

Translation is bound to lose things, the same way that photocopies tend to lose in comparison to the original. There are creative ways to compensate for that, which is why really talented translator/poets break out and can take things like Shakespeare or LiBai into other languages. There are a decent number of people in the world that are multilingual, and I wonder if multilingual created art might cross those barriers more gracefully than people trying to make direct translations (or multicultural art for that matter). I think the possibilities here are endless, for example taking a manual in a foreign language and converting the knowledge into practical skill, as folks do at ARMS, AEMMA, and HASG (information graced from Jeff Lord and the MA Center for Renaissance Studies).

Turning a classical work into a visual exploration, as happens with many illustrated texts and poems is another example… it’s not only a translation of the work, but an attempt to bring some of the immediacy across with accompanying visuals.

There is one danger to this kind of venture, the possibility of locking our understanding to one interpretation. A prime example would be The Little Mermaid, one of my favorite stories when I was growing up. It’s a beautiful story, though a bit depressing. I read it first in an Andersen anthology and was enthralled. Later I saw the ballet and cried through the end, amazed by their version of the story. Then there was the Disney production of the story, which is a definite departure from the original. I think their “version” is good and valid, and worth seeing and enjoying, but I don’t think it’s exactly the story. Still, there are many people who grow up seeing that as the story. I don’t mind the interpretation of the story, I mind the marketing of that story in a way that seems to over shine the original. Again, my purist bias is shining through here. I think it’s ok for children to know just how grim the Grimm fairytales are. I think it’s ok to know that not every wishful little princess gets what she wants, but she makes that decision anyway out of a heartfelt conviction. In that sense I don’t want to see translations move in a direction that seems protectionist, that someone somewhere decides that the audience can’t handle the real thing and needs to be spoon fed a nicer version.

I have not set out any guidelines here for how things should work because I don’t really have a game plan. I only hope that folks in translation are aware of the cultural backdrop of where the piece is coming from, as well as the possible cultural misunderstandings in bringing that art into another culture. It’s really the role for people with that cultural understanding, and especially people with a historical understanding to take part in that translation process, a collaborative effort where possible. I suppose that really highlights a broader sense of translation here, transferring art from one form to another, be it another language, medium, or cultural context.

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