Natsuko Toda has been writing subtitles for 35 years, and
still finds them a challenge
As a little girl watching Hollywood movies in postwar Japan,
Natsuko Toda never dreamed that one day she would be Japans
most sought-after translator to make subtitles for them, or
that she would be called upon to interpret for the stars during
their junkets to Japan. Toda has been making subtitles for
foreign films since 1970 and currently does around 40 films
Toda was born in Fukuoka, where her father worked for a bank.
He died during World War II, so she and her mother moved to
Tokyo. At that time, foreign films were banned, but after
the war, a generation had their eyes opened to the magic of
the movies. The first movies I saw were Chaplins
Gold Rush and John Fords My Darling Clementine,
recalls Toda. I kept going to the movies and that motivated
my interest in English. When I graduated from college, I wanted
to be a subtitle translator because it connected two of my
favorite thingsmovies and English.
Doing subtitles is a lot tougher than most people think. You
get a finished film, accompanied by a copy, and are given
one week to 10 days to work on it. The distributors always
hurry us as they want to show the subtitled version to the
exhibitors and book better theaters, Toda explains.
But because of a recent rush to open in Japan at the same
time as in the US, the final versions do not arrive
until the very last moment. In that case, we get preliminary
versions on video, Toda says. Sometimes, for security
reasons, the pictures are blacked out so we cannot see what
is happening, or who is talking to whom! Can you imagine how
difficult that makes our work?
The most difficult genre to make subtitles for is comedy,
she says. Jokes never translate well. Try a typical
Woody Allen joke on a Japanese audience. You have to explain
why it is funny, and in doing so, it loses its impact. With
a funny story that has a punchline, you just cannot invent
a different story in Japanese for subtitles. It looks forced
and false, and turns the audience off. There are other
challenges, too. The maximum number of characters per scene
is typically 20. Once, names of cities like San Francisco
and New York could be written with just two kanji, but nowadays
the government restricts the number of kanji that can be used.
Unfortunately, many younger Japanese are getting weaker
at reading kanji; thats why we use a lot of katakana,
Toda says. Despite such restrictions, some people still criticize
the quality of subtitles. Of course, we make mistakes,
Toda admits. But critics do not realize we have to be
liberal. The translation gets too long to read while the dialogue
is spoken. Subtitles would disappear in mid-sentence.
Basically a shy person, Toda has had to adjust to being in
the limelight as an interpreter for all the big stars, including
Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and
three generations of Fondas. What kept me at it were
those extraordinary opportunities where I could meet all those
interesting people and learn about movies, she says.
Strange as it may seem, Toda can watch other movies and switch
off her mental subtitle modeto a point. I am pretty
relaxed when I am not responsible for the translation, although
I do notice very good and very bad subtitles sometimes.
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