Loose in translation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2007, 12:00am

At the start of Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant's washed-up singer-songwriter Alex Fletcher is being sold the idea of taking part in a TV show called Battle of the 1980s Has-Beens. It involves former pop idols literally slugging it out for the chance to perform a number at the end of the show.

And who would Fletcher be trading blows with? Rock group Tai Chi and glam pop queen Jenny Tseng - that's if he survives the indignities of playing Hong Kong's municipal town halls, having been unable to fill seats at the Coliseum.

Well, that's what the subtitles would have us believe, anyway. In fact, Grant delivers not one line about Cantopop's past royalty or gigs in the New Territories. Neither does he debate with Drew Barrymore's Sophie Fisher whether a lyric says there's a cloud (baak wan in Chinese) sleeping above his bed or whether it's raunchy actress Bai Ling (baak ling). In fact, the argument is about whether it's 'cloud' or 'clown'.

Marc Lawrence's comedy is only the latest in a series of films whose dialogue has been doctored for local audiences through heavily localised subtitles.

The substitution of Anglo-American cultural references in Hollywood films is nothing new. Not so long ago, for example, local distributors had Jack Black talk about Hong Kong and Japanese models (rather than their American counterparts) in Shallow Hal.

What sets Hong Kong's version of Music and Lyrics (below) apart is just how much the script has been localised. The subtitles don't simply substitute local names for foreign ones - it's as if they're from a different movie altogether.

For example, at one stage a frustrated Fisher takes exception to Fletcher's acerbic remarks and starts to walk out of his flat. 'What, are you leaving?' Fletcher asks. Except that the subtitles read: 'What, are you going to fix some noodles?'

'This is definitely setting a bad example,' says Kenneth Ip, dean of film and television at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (and, as Shu Kei, a veteran filmmaker and subtitle writer). 'It shows no loyalty or respect [to the original text] and it presumes ignorance among the audience.'

Subtitles need not be direct translations, he says, and it's good that obscure references are adapted to local equivalents. 'The main purpose of subtitling is communication and getting the film across to local audiences, after all.' But there's a limit.

Ip says distributors are increasingly pandering to 'bad taste and bad judgment' by filling films with lowbrow language. Apart from corrupting the original dialogue - which is crucial to the culturally specific humour of a movie like Music and Lyrics - it's sometimes technically problematic.

Ip uses Borat (below) as an example. 'There's an attempt to reflect his accent through Chinese subtitles - luk yum gei [recording machine] was written out as luk yum gaai [recording chicken],' he says. 'But accents are phonetic and not [able to be translated as] written puns.'

It's easy to see the domestic-ation of subtitles as a way for distributors to make their wares as digestible as possible for local audiences, a logical step after the deluge of western films given dodgy Chinese dubs.

'It's not the film-going public who have an increasingly narrowing perspective of the world, but the people who produce these subtitles,' Ip says. 'They should be the ones leading the way and demonstrating what quality means.'

A more faithful rendering of original dialogue would certainly mean fewer bizarre flip-flops between fading American pop idols and Hong Kong has-beens.

Music and Lyrics and Borat are screening now