Monday, July 14, 2014

The difficulty of translation and localization

Most people who have never tried translating text from one language to another think that it's a rather trivial thing to do. They are very wrong. Having translated some things between English and Finnish I have really gained an appreciation for the difficulty that this entails.

Translating, especially when we are talking about things like TV shows, is also a very thankless job. For example people who translate anime from Japanese to English sometimes get a lot of flack because they are "butchering" the work by needlessly localizing things rather than being faithful to the original. But the thing is, it's not always that simple.

Some time ago I was thinking about adding English subtitles to a comedy sketch video by Spede Pasanen ("seteliautomaatti"). What I thought would be an easy job resulted to be more difficult than what I imagined. Take for instance this exchange:

"No, mihis the meinaatte mennä?"
"No, kun sattu tää solmiokin, niin aateltiin Mallasaltaaseen poiketa."
"No hyvä on, menkää nyt sitten, mutta vaan pari olutta ja pyttipannu. Siihen menee kuule vajaa satanen."

This translates roughly to:

"So, where are you going?"
"Well, since I have this tie and all, we are thinking of going to [Mallasallas]."
"Ok then, go there, but only two beers and a [pyttipannu]. That's less than a hundred (Finnish marks)."

Even this short exchange has a couple of problematic words to translate.

"Mallasallas", deducing from the context, is ostensibly the name of a higher class beverage establishment, like a bar or pub (I don't know if it's real or fictitious in this sketch, but that doesn't really matter). Its literal translation would be something like "Malt Pool" or "Malt Tank", but since it's the proper name of an establishment, it's questionable to translate it literally.

So how should this be translated? If this were a formal translation, it would be left untranslated (with possibly a footnote explaining what it is), but this is subtitles for a comedy sketch video, not a legal document. The actual name of the establishment is completely inconsequential to the humor; the important thing in the translation would be to simply convey that this is some kind of bar or pub. But how?

One possible solution would be to try to localize the name instead of just translating it. This means using a name that's recognized in the target audience as a high-class bar or pub. But what would that kind of name be? Also, it would still be too narrow because it's very possible that only people from some countries would recognize it. Another possible solution is to simply use some arbitrary name and hope that the viewer understands that it's referring to some kind of establishment.

"Pyttipannu" is even more difficult. It's a dish traditional to the Nordic Countries with no accurate or common translation to English. Wikipedia describes it as "a hodgepodge of food similar to bubble and squeak." How exactly do you translate this?

Again, the precise food is not important for the humor. This is simply a dish that's common in Finnish pubs, which is actually what should be conveyed in the translation. An accurate translation would not convey this at all. While teaching the viewer about this tidbit of Finnish culture might be informative, it's not the point of the translation.

A better translation would be some dish that's common in pubs everywhere, or at the very least is understood by the viewer as such. But what? Different countries and cultures have their own popular pub dishes. It's impossible to translate this in a general way.

Fansubs (eg. of anime) often use "footnotes" to explain more complex terms, and this could be used here (ie. simply leave the word untranslated and add something like "a dish common in Finnish pubs" as a footnote somewhere on the screen). However, while this is common in fansubs (and could indeed be done here), it's not the norm in more "professional" subs.

Also, what if we were translating this for a dub instead of subtitles? No footnotes possible there...

When one actually tries to translate text from one language to another, one really gains appreciation for the difficult job that professional translators have to go through, and how thankless and unappreciated said job is.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Everything is sexist

Let's take the classical trope of the "damsel in distress": A woman gets kidnapped, and a man has to rescue her. Is this trope sexist? "Of course!", says the feminist. It reinforces the notion of women as being weak and fragile, incapable of defending themselves, and having to rely on a man to help them.

Does this reflect the actual, real world, on average? That doesn't even matter. Works of art should be used as tools to change people's attitudes, not reflecting reality.

But never mind that. Let's just grant that the original trope is sexist. How about the gender-reversed version? In other words, a man gets kidnapped and a woman has to rescue him. Is that sexist?

Of course it is. But not in the opposite direction. In the same direction. You see, this panders to male sexual fantasy. This has undertones of SM and dominatrix fantasies. The woman is nothing more than a tool to excite the man's imagination.

What if both the kidnapping victim and the rescuer are women? Is it still sexist? But of course it is! This once again panders to men's sexual fantasies because this scenario is hot!

If the kidnapper is a male, it's obviously sexist (because it reinforces the notion of men being in power and subjecting women to their will.) What if the kidnapper is female? Again, panders to male sexual SM dominatrix fantasies.

Ok, but what if the victim, the kidnapper and the rescuer are all men. Surely there can't be anything sexist in this scenario?

Haha, how wrong you would be to think that. Of course it's sexist! There's a severe lack of female representation in this work, and thus it reinforces the notion of a male-dominant society where only men do things and act, while women are confined to their homes, out of view.

You may think that I'm straw-manning the issue. If you think so, you haven't watched enough feminist videos nor read enough feminist blogs.

(Yes, not all feminists are like this, not even the majority. However, some of them are, and unfortunately they tend to be very vocal and obnoxious.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Criticism of the 2014 Godzilla movie

People always complain how Hollywood produces nothing more than mindless action flicks for the masses. They are dumb, they have no subtlety, they have no depth... just mindless action for 90 minutes.

Then they decided to make the new Godzilla movie better. Rather than just 2 hours of mindless action, it would be subtler. It would build suspense and intrigue, it would hint rather than show, it would have a deeper plot... In other words, it would be smarter than your average action-packed mindless action flick.

And of course people complain. There is no pleasing them. If they make a mindless action flick, they complain. If they make a smarter and subtler action flick, they complain. Nothing is ever good.

They complained that the 1998 Godzilla film was too stupid. Now they complain that the 2014 Godzilla film is not stupid enough. I think that it's the people who are stupid here.

Personally I love the new Godzilla movie precisely because of its subtlety. They could have gone the easy route of making a typical 1-hour "discovery of the monster" movie followed by a 1-hour endless fighting sequence. Instead, they made something more suspenseful, subtler and smarter, and that's precisely why I liked it so much.

The people who complain about it not being dumb enough can shut up and go watch the 1998 version.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The unprotected minority

Some time ago it was estimated that in the UK over half of the population belonged to some minority that had special legal protection from discrimination. In other words, quite ironically, there exists a minority of people (ie. under 50% of the population) in the UK that enjoys no special legal protection from discrimination. In other words, it's the only unprotected minority. The only "acceptable target".

I don't know if the "unprotected" (which usually means "white males") are the minority in other western countries, but the condition of being an "acceptable target" is something that's not much discussed, at least in any other way than to belittle them.

In the modern ultra-politically-correct world there is one group of people that does not enjoy any form of special protection against being offended: White males. They are being constantly insulted by society, and this is somehow considered acceptable, and the norm.

In fact, many people who might read this will immediately assume that I'm some kind of "men's rights activist", sexist, or any number of other terms thrown mostly as an insult. The mere attempt at discussing the phenomenon often elicits assumptions, insults and belittling (which just demonstrates my point quite well.)

Many feminists keep throwing concepts like "male privilege" (which usually means white "male privilege", as they seldom include non-white people in the group), usually as a form of shaming. Apparently I should feel some kind of guilt or shame for being "privileged", even though it's not something I chose or can do anything about. Apparently I'm a completely acceptable and free target for insults and shaming because I happen to be of the wrong gender (and the wrong ethnicity), and I just have to learn to accept it.

This is rather unique. Most often if someone has some kind of defect (physical or otherwise) that they cannot help and didn't choose (eg. because it's innate), it's considered impolite to point it out and use it as a form of shaming. Being a white male is one of the very few exceptions to this. They are free to be shamed and insulted for being white males, and this is apparently completely acceptable, and they should just suck it.

They are, effectively, the only unprotected minority. You would never get away with publicly insulting a woman, or a non-white man, because of them being women or non-white. You would get severe scorn, sometimes even legal prosecution. The only people who you can freely insult and shame because of their gender and/or ethnicity is white males. It doesn't even matter if they are using their "privilege" or acting in an unacceptable manner. They might be the nicest people in the world, yet still should just submit to the insults and shut up about it.

White males cannot even publicly complain about this situation without being immediately accused of all kinds of things, called names, and belittled.