Found In Translation

I love it how old movies come with their own visual Babelfish translator for foreign languages. In DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, Sessue Hayakawa is handed a matchbox with a secret message written on it in Chinese.

After a quick dissolve, we get to read what it says in English.

Such devices are wildly unreal, or surreal, when you think about it. Like when they turn the lights out in a cartoon, and you can still see the characters’ eyes. Where did the idea come from that these things would work and be happily accepted by the audience?

Seems to me the innovators who dreamed up these devices had a lot more confidence than most of us today.

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11 Responses to “Found In Translation”

  1. If the translation didn’t serve the storytelling, we’d be in avant-garde territory. But because it removes a barrier between the audience and the story, it becomes a mainstream filmmaking ploy. Storytelling trumps everything.

    Now those ethnic fonts are another matter….

  2. there is a good bit in die hard where willis is trapped in the glass office and alan rickman has just found out he’s got no shoes on

    “schiess den fenster”, he hisses to his impossibly teutonic henchman, whose face creaks itself into a rictus somewhere between bewilderment and revulsion

    “SHOOT..THE..WINDOWS” explains rickman at the very limit of his patience

    karl understands at last and shoots out the windows, proving once and for all that foreign people respond best to slow, loud english

  3. If there are any Chinese readers out there who can tell us if the translation is actually correct, that would be nice to know. It seems entirely possible they might just make up some squiggles, or get Hayakawa to write it in Japanese, since he was around.

    Dan: I like the idea of pointless translations that don’t advance the story, leading us up avant-garde cul-de-sacs.

    I guess the ethnic font is saying… I don’t know, maybe “This is what text looks like to Chinese eyes”?

    Alex: That Die Hard moment, as evoked by you, is priceless. We finally discover that McTiernan’s 80s action-fest is a 1930s British movie at heart.

  4. And yet so many people go on about Die Hard being a Western.

    Actually, it is of course a Pirate Movie. A motley band of heavily armed, ethnically diverse baddies under the supervision of a ruthless, aristocratic dandy commandeer a commercial enterprise in search of buried treasure, blowing up hapless authority figures with cannon fired out of the side while our topless hero swings around on the end of a rope. Hose. Thing.

    When I first saw the effect you mentioned – I forget in what – I had to have it explained to me that this wasn’t some kind of cat-from-outer-space type metamorphosis being worked on the text by the magic reader. I was little.

    Oh, and on the topic of incidental expeimentalism, any idea what this is?

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=RTWtAjpDRUo

  5. My favorite example of needless translation is that exchange between Linda Darnell and Florence Bates in the Mankiewiecz “Letter To Three Wives.” It’s in the middle episode, where the party given by Ann Southen comes to a halt so that everyone can listen to bad radio serials.

    When a “Brenda Starr”-style ersatz South American lothario is heard to say “Gracias,” Bates turns to the crowd and says “That’s Spanish for ‘thank-you’.”

    Responds the Texas-born Darnell: “Gracias.”

  6. That’s such a great script. Amazing to see Kirk Douglas in such a role too, and succeeding beautifully in it. Love Darnell and Ritter’s stuff too.

  7. The Crosby thing is pretty amazing! The comparison with Oskar Fischinger is an apt one, as there was considerable interest in abstract musical film in the 30s, maybe a natural response to synch sound.

    Does anyone know more?

  8. Die Hard as pirate movie is pretty smart. Although usually the pirates turn into heroes in those films.

    McTiernan clearly has a Kubrick obsession: Beethoven’s 9th is used to score the film, and the computer villain hums Singin’ in the Rain while he kicks in the hardware. Then McTiernan’s Die Hard With a Vengeance uses music from Dr Strangelove.

  9. Carol O'Sullivan Says:

    It’s an interesting device – has anyone come across similar uses of the dissolve elsewhere?
    I ran the images past a Chinese-speaking colleague who said doubtfully that some of the characters might be in some way referring to a house but you wouldn’t say it like that. And some of the characters didn’t make any sense at all. She suggested checking in case it was Japanese… :)

  10. Carol O'Sullivan Says:

    I ran this past another, Japanese-speaking colleague who says they look like genuine but random Japanese characters except for two which mean ‘tonight’. So hypothesis confirmed more or less!

  11. Thanks for that!
    In answer to your question, the translation-dissolve turns up in plenty of classic Hollywood films, and seems to survive longer in the cartoons, where it has obvious gag potential: a character enters a building which they assume is a restaurant, or something, and then the sign dissolves into English, revealing that it is in fact the Reptile House, or something.
    It seems to have been more common with Chinese and Japanese than with other languages, since I guess it’s easier to make up a French or German phrase that’s somewhat understandable.

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