Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Lost In Translation

A movie that transcends geography and simply pierces your soul with its message is a masterpiece. Such movies, in most cases are thematically simple and break the cultural shackles so violently, that the language of the film is no barrier at all. To appreciate 'Seven Samurai', you need not speak or understand Japanese. You don't have to know the lifestyles of samurais or farmers in the backdrop of medieval Japan to truly appreciate the movie, because the movie is something deeper than the characters and it's settings. But for a movie that is deep-rooted in culture, geography is a barrier. You need apriori knowledge about the place and people to grasp the depth of what the characters mean.

Some genres invariably fall into the cultural trap: comedy, family, mockumentary, etc. Of all the genres, I think comedy suffers the most when it comes to translation. Talking of catering Indian movies to international audience, 'Micheal Madana Kama Rajan', the second best movie I've seen, doesn't provide even 10% of the laughs in Telugu, forget it subtitling in English. I've seen subtitled versions of Thenali and Panchathanthiram and it's quite difficult to not blame the producers. Not that they did a lousy job translating, but for coming up with the idea to sub-title. Many jokes are based on word-play and cultural differences that how ever hard you try, you won't laugh at the joke by reading it; you may laugh at the translation, which is unintentional. I've seen bits and pieces of Hindi movies with English sub-titles, and the slap-stick comedy it featured, I assume must have been equally painful for Hindi audience as it is for non-Hindi audience.

The other side of translation is funny, but raises an integrity question - foreign movies that are translated into Indian languages. Interestingly, I haven't seen any sub-titled movie so far, only dubbed versions; and I haven't seen any non-English movies dubbed for Indian audience*. So, when an English movie is dubbed (which is usually the case), say in Tamil, our translators bring a strong cultural force to the characters, which distorts their development. In the recently broadcast 'Shanghai Noon', Owen Wilson's Roy was horribly twisted, because of the slang and voice that was provided to him. It was funny, I confess, but I personally think the director would be unhappy if he understood Tamil, for taking his creative child and reshaping it.

The director/writer develop characters (primary) and they want it to be perceived a certain way. But depending upon the viewer's personal experience, he brings a part of his history in identfying/disowning the character on top of the primary development. This projection, which is secondary character development, happens in the mind of the viewer. Translators should understand that every word they choose to substitute directly affects the primary character development process, which eventually defines the tone of the movie.

* Talking of non-English movies dubbed into Indian languages, martial arts flicks from China make an exception. These movies are more dependent on stunt sound effects than on dialogues. Their target base is kung-fu fans, and most of the original dialogues are awful. So, the translator is at liberty to improve the movie.

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