THE CREATIVE WORLD OF SPANISH SUBTITLES
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If film makers only knew what their movies say
once they cross the border...
©2006, John J. Pint
All rights reserved
I live in Mexico and often rent videos. Most of these have the original sound track in English, with Spanish subtitles. As my Spanish has been improving over the years, I've discovered that sometimes the subtitles are more entertaining than the film.
For example, here's a line from Body Chemistry II: "I dreamed I was in bed with you." That's what was spoken from the screen, but what countless Spanish speakers saw in the subtitle was "Soñé que estaba en Beverly Hills," which means "I dreamed I was in Beverly Hills." To say the least, something got lost in the translation.
Highly inventive subtitles like this one are typical of what non-English speakers occasionally encounter while viewing most of the films that come their way. But how do translators make such enormous blunders in the first place?
A glance at a few similar mistranslations may shed light on this question. In the movie Sliver, "Carly, you're wrong!" comes out "Carly, Don't run!" In Missing, "a scuba-diving course" became "a course on Cuba" and in Princes in Exile, "We started out butting heads" is turned into: "We started out with butterheads."
These three examples suggest, first, that the translator's knowledge of English isn't exactly top-notch and, second, that the translator does not have access to a written script and is entirely depending on his or her ear. This might help us understand why “He’s a bachelor” was heard as “He’s an amateur” by the translator of House of the Spirits, but how a simple phrase like "Come on over!" could be bizarrely transmogrified into "Come, Elver!" (in the film Stranded) is more difficult to explain.
Now, sometimes the translator gets the English right, word for word, but can't make heads or tails out of it. The expression may be a technical, historical or religious allusion or just "teen talk" and unlikely to be found in the dictionary. In an episode of Smallville, for example, Clark tells Lana, “I’m going to buy you a looking glass,” but the translator has a very hazy idea of what this is and our hero ends up promising to buy the girl “a magnifying glass” instead. In the film Don Juan de Marcos, the translator misses the religious connotations in "It was like the Garden after the Fall" and turns it into "the garden after the autumn." In White Wolves, a hungry hiker opens her knapsack, digs inside and says, "Who took my Power Bars?" The translator, obviously not a big candy bar fan, valiantly tries to make sense out of this cryptic question and has the girl say, "Who took my emergency lights?" Unfortunately, those Power Bars come back into the story several times and eventually get eaten up, leaving much of the Spanish speaking world wondering when those wonderful edible flashlights will appear at the hardware stores in their country.
Such heroic attempts to turn a cryptic expression into words that somehow relate to the film are rare indeed. Most of the time, the so-called translation is conjured up the way Dagwood sandwiches are made, by anxiously grabbing whatever comes to hand first. For example, the trailer for Born to be Wild says the upcoming film will be brought to us by "Warner Brothers Spanley Entertainment." Warner probably has no idea their film was translated by someone who couldn't recognize the word "Family," but at least they can be proud they got a translator with a really wild imagination. Perhaps it was this same creative soul who turned the epic film Alexander into a surreal comedy. Throughout the movie Heracles is referred to as Hercules, Thebes is translated as “thieves” and The Queen of a Thousand Roses is turned into “The Queen of 1000 Trousers.”
Before feeling sorry for the readers of these Spanish subtitles, consider what you might have been reading the last time you watched a foreign flick. Wim Wenders' Far Away, So Close contains dialogue in German, French, Italian and English. Every time the German came up, I was entirely at the mercy of the subtitles. When English was spoken, however, I had a chance to judge the translator's abilities. A woman walks up to a guitarist who had performed in public a bit earlier in the film and tells him, "I saw your concept."
Of course, foreign-film dialogue is expected to sound a bit odd, but it would be nice if it had something to do with the movie.
Next, we come to the high point of creativity in subtitling. Bored with simply replacing English with Spanish, the translator tries his or her hand at scriptwriting and attempts to improve the movie. For example, in The Witches of Salem, a truly pitiless judge condemns the accused to jail and stipulates a daily diet of “three drops of water and three morsels of bread…that’s all.” However, the milk of human kindness obviously flows through the translator’s veins and the subtitles announce that the prisoner is going to receive nothing less than “three jars of water and three loaves of bread” per day.
Of course, if there’s a high point, there must also be a low point and that’s when the translator doesn't just get it wrong, but manages to come up with the exact opposite of what was said. Such a scenario occurs in Loving Lulu when the question is asked, "Would you like to share this with me?" In English, the answer is an enthusiastic, "You're on!" The translator, however, apparently had never come across such an obscure expression and turned it into "(Olvídalo!" in Spanish, which means, "Forget it!"
When it comes to getting things dead wrong, though, no one could outdo the translator of a better-forgotten sci-fi flop called Dead Space, in which the ship's robot announces "Defense shields are up!" while the subtitle reads "Defense shields are down!"
What could film producers do to ensure that their painstakingly crafted masterpieces remain somewhat intelligible to millions of moviegoers around the world? They might insist that translation agencies start practicing quality control and undergo frequent spot checks by independent sources. They might also insist that subtitle translators work in bilingual pairs, one member being a native speaker of Spanish educated in a Spanish-speaking country and the other an English speaker educated in an English-speaking country. My wife and I fall into these categories and we've discovered that working together really pays off. Besides, four eyes spot far more mistakes than two.
If such practices are followed, Steven Spielberg may fare better than Bill Clinton did when his reelection victory speech was broadcast all over Latin America... translated into Spanish, of course. Here's what the humorist Navarrete had to say about Clinton's speech, in the highly acclaimed newspaper Siglo 21:
"If that translator was doing a good job, we may be assured that the president of the most ostentatious country on this planet is dyslexic, tongue-tied and spaced out, and on top of that, demonstrates unmistakable signs of being mentally retarded."
John J. Pint