Monday, January 29, 2007

Lost in translation?

Peking Opera Blues screen captures

As many English subtitle reliant Hong Kong movie fans will readily tell you, sometimes, you have to question what gets translated from Cantonese (or some other dialect of Chinese) to English in Hong Kong.

Below are a couple items of interest which are available to be read in their entirety at the New York Times' website. However, since registration is required in order to read this at the original source and some people might not wish to bother to do so, here's going ahead and reproducing pertinent portions from the two relevant pages:-

i) Richard F. Shepherd's 25th January, 1989, review of Peking Opera Blues (Hong Kong, 1986):-

While it can be funny and vivid, the film has a disconnected quality that makes it extraordinarily difficult to follow. The English subtitles are so daffy that the eye waits for the next malapropism instead of watching the story itself. At one point, a soldier says ''Catch him,'' when the Chinese is actually saying, according to someone familiar with the language, ''Salute him.'' Wishes for success come to the subtitle as ''Congratulations for your defeat.'' And what does ''I want to you for the last time'' mean?...

...It's a spectacle, no doubt, but if there were no subtitles, one might follow it more easily.

ii) Nansun Shi's surely admirably as well as remarkably candid 19 March, 1989, Letter to the Editor (which is entitled "PEKING OPERA BLUES; Substandard Subtitles"):-

I am the wife of Tsui Hark, the director of ''Peking Opera Blues''..., and I am writing on his behalf. We regret that your reviewer, Richard Shepard, had to suffer the awful subtitles, which we are aware of and yet are unable to do anything about. Due to the system of production in Hong Kong, very often the film maker is not in a position to see the film released as it should be. This letter is not so much an excuse as an attempt to try and clarify for you what must seem to be a totally senseless thing to do - to spend a large sum of money and time on shooting and very little on postproduction...

...As few films get released in non-Chinese markets, very little regard is given to the English subtitles. It is indeed a great pity sometimes, especially if a Hong Kong film is invited to film festivals. The same old print would be sent - bad subtitles, poor print quality and all...

And should you wonder: About the only Pollyanna-ish spin that I can put on this situation is to suggest that it says much about many English subtitles-dependent fans of Hong Kong movies' general tolerance -- along with ability to transcend linguistic as well as cultural barriers -- that so many of us are able to appreciate and love the remarkable cinematic work that is Peking Opera Blues even though it comes saddled with the substandard English subtitles that it does... :S

(N.B. This entry has been much edited so that the latest version is quite different for its original. However, I trust that those who have read all the versions will agree with me that the action taken was for the best.)


Madara said...

Might I point out that the word in the ad reads, to my apparently less jaded eyes, as "homy"--H-O-M-Y, to spell it out, a misspelling that I'm sure was meant to say, "homey," as in feeling like home. On the other hand...I think you knew that. (Hmmm...)

Re: the letter - what a great find! Who knew that this whole issue which is so dear to our hearts was being discussed in The New York Times long before so many of us were even aware of these films. I'm somewhat dismayed to think I may have read that review (and the letter) at the time they were published and failed to take proper note. It would be another two years after that before I would see my first Tsui Hark film--ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. After that, believe me, I took note! And haven't stopped since.

YTSL said...

To those readers who have come late into the picture --

The ad pointed out by leo86 has been removed from the entry. However excerpts along with a link to the letter referred to in the second paragraph remain.