“sorry im so smart and right about everything I can’t help it 😭😭” – @kammypRequiem, Famous Last Words
Save the exception where one has at least Level 3 proficiency with Japanese, most English-speaking fans of anime typically consume their anime by means of either subtitles or dubs, and because dialogue plays a critical role in our interpretation of a given work of fiction, listening to what is being said (or reading its translated equivalent) is central in helping one draw conclusions about a series with regard to its intentions. Consequently, the clarity of themes in a given foreign work goes part-and-parcel with a good translation; done well, a good translation can convey themes to viewers irrespective of the linguistics barrier, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a poor translation can obfuscate a character’s intents, or even degrade the meaning of a work to the point where it is no longer recognisable. The quality of a translation and its implications are therefore the subject of no small debate in the anime community. However, while it is the object of comedy to criticise a translation, making a good translation is not a trivial process, requiring a passable level of knowledge to ensure that meaning is not lost, while simultaneously ensuring that the recipient has a good understanding of what’s going on: cultural and linguistic barriers can often-times make translations very tricky. In this post, I aim to explore one instance of where a poor translation negatively impacts the weight of a scene, and because I am a native Cantonese speaker, I will be use Steven Chow’s 1993 film, Flirting Scholar (唐伯虎點秋香, jyutping tong4 baak3 fu2 dim2 cau2 heong1), as my example. To provide a bit of background, Flirting Scholar follows a highly fictionalised account of Tong Pak Fu (Steven Chow) as he searches for a suitable wife who appreciates his scholarly strengths. His journey leads him to the House of Wah: he saves Chow Heung (Gong Li) from some ruffians and becomes enamoured with her. However, for his skill, Tong Pak Fu has numerous enemies that seek to destroy him, and must fend off his enemies while closing the distance between himself and Chow Heung.
At one point in the movie, one of the House of Wah’s enemies, Prince Ning, appears. One of his scholars, Tu Chuen-Chang (對穿腸, played by Vincent Kok), challenges the House of Wah to a Chinese Dyad (對對, jyutping deoi5 deoi3) competition. This word game is similar to Shiritori, a Japanese word game where players must name something that begins with the kana of the previously mentioned word. In Shiritori, only nouns may be used, words may not be recycled, and using anything ending in ん causes an instant loss. A Chinese Dyad Competition can be seen more sophisticated version of this game, Shiritori on fucking steroids, as it were: players must form sentences of a certain composition, typically govermed by the same iambic meter, rhyming phrases and follow a certain theme. A player loses this game if they cannot “reply” to a sentence the other player has raised using the parameters specified by the “question” sentence. Because this game is dependent on rhyming, syllable composition, vocabulary and puns, it is a game that traditionally, only scholars could engage in. The resulting couplets that form from a “question” and “reply”, utilising very obscure words or unusual phrases, and therefore, become immensely difficult to translate. In Flirting Scholar, Tu Chuen-Chang squares off against Tong Pak Fu at one point and is annihilated by a “lowly nobody”, but in the film, the English subtitles do not properly capture the nuances of their competition. With the help of family, whose Cantonese knowledge is more profound than my own, I’ve therefore presented a translation of all of the questions and retorts that Tong Pak Fu and Tu Chuen-Chang:
Tu Chuen-Chang： 一鄉二里共三夫子，不識四書五經六義，竟敢教七八九子，十分大膽！
Subtitles: A for apple B for boy, C for cat and D for dog, E for egg and G for girl.
Actual translation: There is one county, two valleys, three teachers in total, understanding four books, five classics and six skills, teaching seven, eight and nine students, and are very brave.
Tong Pak Fu： 十室九貧，湊得八兩七錢六分五毫四厘，尚且三心二意，一等下流！
Subtitles: Doe a deer, Ray a drop of golden sun, me a name I call myself, far a long long way to run.
Actual translation: In ten rooms, nine are poor, collecting eight pounds, seven dollars, six pennies, five cents (and) four pence, but still have three or two opinions, all of which are first-class.
The unusual flow of numbers sequentially used make this exceptionally difficult to succinctly translate. Tu Chuen-Chang opens with a show of force to show what he can do, setting up a complex question that no one except Tong Pak Fu can answer. Because Chinese allows for many ideas to be communicated in a very short number of syllables (Cantonese is monosyllabic), it takes quite a bit more in English to convey what is being said, and the translation given in the movie itself completely fails in capturing the meaning. The attempts at the same couplet in English fail to show Tu Chuen-Chang’s skill, and more importantly, Tong Pak Fu’s own prowess in matching Tu Chuen-Chang.
Tu Chuen-Chang： 圖書裡，龍不吟虎不嘯，小小書僮可笑可笑。
Subtitles: In the picture, the dragons and tigers won’t roar.
Actual translation: In your painting, the dragons don’t chant and the tigers don’t roar, (Tong Pak Fu) a small learning servant is very funny and ridiculous.
Tong Pak Fu： 棋盤裡，車無輪馬無韁，叫聲將軍提防提防。
Subtitles: In the chess, the horses and the generals can’t fight.
Actual translation: On your chessboard, the carts lack wheels and the knights lack reins, they tell the General (Tu Chuen-Chang) be cautious (not to be beaten).
After Tu Chuen-Chang and Tong Pak Fu face one another down, ending with a mock kiss that face faults the spectators, their competition is starts. Tu Chuen-Chang opens by mocking Tong Pak Fu’s paintings, claiming they lack life and note that the idea of a nobody being scholarly is laughable. Tong Pak Fu retorts by saying that Tu Chuen-Chang should be more careful. The original subtitles capture half of each line: the insults that Tu Chuen-Chang and Tong Pak Fu exchange are absent, which eliminates the mutual dislike both have for one another from being communicated to viewers.
Tu Chuen-Chang： 鶯鶯燕燕翠翠紅紅處處融融洽洽。
Subtitles: An A, a bee, a C and a D.
Actual translation: Warblers and swallows, green and red flowers, here and there, it’s peaceful.
Tong Pak Fu： 雨雨風風花花葉葉年年暮暮朝朝。
Subtitles: An E, an F, a G and an H
Actual translation: Rain and wind, flowers and leaves, year by year, there’s morning and dusk.
The next stanzas in the question-reply are again, difficult to translate. Tu Chuen-Chang opens by duplicating every word to create a bit of a resonance that conveys serenity, and Tong Pak Fu matches him, continuing on with the theme of things that are harmonious and peaceful. The subtitles given in the film does not do this part justice, saying nothing about how readily Tong Pak Fu was able to find a reply to Tu Chuen-Chang’s question so quickly. The only hint of this comes from the spectators in the House of Wah, who praise Tong Pak Fu.
Tu Chuen-Chang： 十口心思，思君思國思社稷。
Subtitles: See a jerk standing over there.
Actual translation: (The) ten minds of mine are for looking after the people, the country and the crown.
Tong Pak Fu： 八目尚賞，賞花賞月賞秋香。
Subtitles: Hear (hear) a bastard sitting before me
Actual translation: (The) eight eyes of ours are for enjoying the flowers, moon and Chow Heung.
In response to Tong Pak Fu, Tu Chuen-Chang’s next question speaks to his skill: Tong Pak Fu is merely a servant, and Tu Chuen-Chang wants to emphasise that he has studied to be a great scholar for lord and land. He is not insulting Tong Pak Fu directly here, but rather, implying that his skills are being put to use for something important. Tong Pak Fu’s retort is simple enough: even though he might be simpler, everyone has senses that are for appreciating beautiful things in nature (directly complimenting Chow Heung). Neither throw insults at one another here just yet, but the original subtitles say otherwise.
Tu Chuen-Chang： 我上等威風，顯現一身虎膽。
Subtitles: I am a hero in the battlefield
Actual translation: I am a hero in the making, my courage is that of a tiger’s
Tong Pak Fu： 你下流賤格，露出半個龜頭。
Subtitles: You are a chicken in bed instead
Actual translation: You are crass, your head is that of a turtle’s
Here, the insults begin flying: tired of Tu Chuen-Chang’s bragging, Tong Pak Fu returns fire with an insult. While the original subtitles don’t capture the nuances of their exchange, the essentials are portrayed. I note that it is possible to interpret “露出半個龜頭” as a pun. I’ve elected to go with a cleaner translation, but one might be able to make a case that Tong Pak Fu is really saying “you’re disgusting, and you’re jacking off”. Knowledge of Cantonese slang further accentuates what Tong Pak Fu thinks of Tu Chuen-Chang, although without elaborating, these subtleties become lost. Subsequently, Tu Chuen-Chang openly declares losing to a lowly untrained scholar like Tong Pak Fu would be shameful.
Tu Chuen-Chang： 冚家剷泥齊種樹。
Subtitles: Let’s plant trees together
Actual translation: Your entire family can plant trees together
Tong Pak Fu： 汝家池塘多鮫魚。
Subtitles: For the grave of your father
Actual translation: There’s a pool in front of the house filled with catfish
Tu Chuen-Chang： 魚肥果熟麻撚飯。
Subtitles: My grandmom has prepared the supper
Actual translation: When those fish become fat (and the fruits ripen), they’ll become dinner
Tong Pak Fu: 你老母兮親下廚！
Subtitles: My God-father has screwed your grandma!
Actual translation: Your mother can cook them for you!
The final exchange is heated, with Tu Chuen-Chang losing composure, and Tong Pak Fu clearly looks like he’s enjoying himself now. Tu Chuen-Chang’s question is a pun: 冚家 simply means “the entire family”, and with the iambic meter here, the proper translation allows the phrase to be given as asking the family to plant trees. However, 冚家剷 (jyutping ham6 gaa1 caan2) is phonetically identical to the Cantonese phrase 冚家祥, which essentially translates to “your entire family can drop dead” and is counted as a deadly insult. Tong Pak Fu catches this and sets Tu Chuen-Chang up for a fall, ending with his final retort that puts Tu Chuen-Chang on the floor. Tong Pak Fu closes by remarking that Chinese Dyad is only supposed to be for sport, wondering why Tu Chuen-Chang is taking it so seriously before he heads off. The original English subtitles result in much of Tong Pak Fu’s character being lost to translation: his scholarly skill and wit are not apparent, and because this scene does much to illustrate the true extent of his skill, which he had been concealing throughout Flirting Scholar, viewers watching using the subtitles are unlikely able to appreciate Tong Pak Fu’s intentions and how he manages to win Chow Heung over. The quality of subtitles in Flirting Scholar therefore illustrates the importance of a good translation and how meanings can be very easily lost, degrading one’s ability to appreciate a work, and if one holds this to be true, then one must also wonder why I’m taking a Steven Chow comedy so seriously:
うそやで！Uso ya de!
In case it were not clear, today is April Fool’s Day, and I figured today was a time to do something fun for the blog. This post was motivated by a video that family had sent me: in reality, Steven Chow’s Flirting Scholar is counted as a comedy classic, following the adventures of Tong Pak Fu as he searches for a wife who doesn’t gamble and upon encountering Chow Heung, decides to court her. The Chinese Dyad scene is among my favourite in the movie, and as a child, I never did understand what was being said. When a recent flame-fest erupted on Twitter about localisations, I figured I could probably whip up something hilarious by combining the two: I ended up asking family about the scene, worked out a translation and then whipped this post up. I like to think that I was fairly convincing until at least the end – it is a fair challenge to maintain a ruse for extended periods of time. My real thoughts on localisation and translations, along with the whole “dub vs sub” debate, is that I care very little for taking sides, and that people should simply just enjoy what they prefer without feeling compelled to impose their preferences upon others, or worry that they would be judged for what they enjoy. With this being said, while my stance on localisation and serious “take” on Flirting Scholar might’ve been a fib on the same scale as Aoi “Inuko” Inuyama’s, I remark that the film is real (and very funny), the Chinese Dyad competition does happen, and I put genuine effort into the translations, which are as close as I can get them to their English equivalents. Of course, I now put myself in a bit of a tough spot: readers might not be inclined to take my next post seriously, which would be a shame if it came to pass!