What They Said

What They SaidRecently a student asked a group of us what would be some good martial arts movies to watch. A whole host of them popped up. At the top of my list was “Kung Fu Hustle.”

If you have not seen it, do. Check Netflix or Hulu, or the Best Buy DVD section, or order it. It is well worth your entertainment dollar. It has some wonderful fight sequences, but it isn’t about stunning technique. In fact, it is so computerized that technique has no real meaning. But that is the beauty of it. It is a fun, funny, sometimes poignant, martial arts romp, a wonderful blend of the “Road Runner and Coyote,” B-Grade Kung Fu movies, and “Forrest Gump.”

As we talked about it, we began to talk about translations. It is a Chinese film. On DVD, the viewer has options of watching it in Cantonese with English or French captioning, or with English or French over-dubs. Because of the discussion about “Kung Fu Hustle,” I was so filled with fire that I decided to re-watch it. I elected this time to watch it with the English over-dub as well as the English captions.

Very often people express that they do not like reading subtitles. They say it distracts from the on screen imagery and action. Some express they do not like over-dubs, preferring to read subtitles. I am often in that camp. I will not shy away from a subtitled film. There is often a bit of snobbery from the subtitle readers. It is the idea that the subtitles are somehow more appropriate, being able to hear how the original actors emoted their lines. There is also the thought that the subtitles are somehow better or more accurate translations.

While I re-watched the movie with the over-dub and subtitles, several things occurred to me. No matter how you slice it, both are translations. Neither is wholly correct nor more accurate. While you may not get a feel for how the actor originally emoted their lines, you can’t really understand that anyway if you do not understand the language. Inflections are not standard across languages. The subtle nuances cannot really be understood, felt, or even recognized if you are not a native speaker.

Granted, the over-dub actors add their own influence, acting upon acting. However, the over-dub actors will have some understanding of the listening audience. They will be able to add subtle qualities recognized by that audience. Subtitles add the readers’ own voice; their own interpretation of the subtle inflections, which may be wholly unintended by the original screen writer or even the translation writer for that matter.

Additionally, I began to realize that subtitles must be abrupt. The translation writer along with the Caption engineer must be sure that the information can be read within the time frame of the line. This may often lead to literal translations of some words in order to avoid flamboyant flourishes that may be closer to the original intent, leading to drastically abbreviated text.

This became really clear as I listened to the over-dub and read the English subtitles; the two scripts were often radically different. The intent of the storyline existed in both. However, wonderful nuances were often in the over-dub that were lacking in the subtitles.

Certainly the original writer had some flow of regional understanding woven into the movie. Those subtle references of rhyme and history may not translate to another language. A strict, written translation may therefore be dry. But an over-dub actor can read the script, look at the scene, and find some other regionally understood approach to the same line.

Here is an example: The background is this; two of the main hero characters are about to face one of the major villains, called ‘The Beast.’ Our minor heros present The Beast with a gift of a 5-foot tall Chinese funeral bell. They all discuss it for a moment as they prepare for battle.

In the subtitle version it goes like this:
Female Hero: “You cannot escape your fate.” (She indicates the funeral bell.)
The Beast’s cohort: “With the Beast here, let’s see whose funeral it is!”

Here is the over-dub version of the same lines:
Female Hero: “We brought you a gift you cannot refuse.” (She indicates the funeral bell.)
The Beast’s cohort: “With the Beast on our side, we shall see for who the bell tolls!”

There is a brief discussion where the two forces determine if they wish to fight. The Beast replies:
Subtitle: “Okay. Let’s do it.”
Over-dub: “Okay. Let’s dance.”

Clearly the over-dub contains more references recognized by the English audience, and as such adds some poetic and humorous sense and flow. These references and flow considerations may bear little resemblance to the original language lines, but follows a style intended by the film overall. As stated earlier, both are translations and neither can be wholly correct. But I begin to wonder if spoken to spoken translations aren’t ultimately better than translating spoken into written captions. I rather liked what they ‘said.’

Sifu Keith Mosher

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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