Monday, August 14, 2006

Lost in translation

My brother decided to download and rewatch the Zhang Yimou movie Hero last weekend, and I followed suit last night. I had first seen the film in China while I was studying in Beijing. To date, it is the only Chinese movie I have seen in a real Chinese movie theater with a real Chinese audience (they actually applaud during the movie, good grief). Since I did not have the aid of English subtitles or dubbing, it was quite a challenge deciphering the movie's plot and sifting through the heavy dialogue (some of the characters spoke in chengyu or Chinese idioms, which can be quite a puzzle even to one who has a decent grasp of the language). Since I felt I did not fully appreciate what seemed to be a truly magnificent film owing to my inadequate Mandarin comprehension skills, I went to see Hero again when it was released in Manila, with English subtitles. However, for some reason (perhaps it was the clapping, haha), my memories of viewing the film in Beijing are still stronger. In fact, I did not even remember having watched it in Manila until last night, towards the end of what was actually my 3rd viewing, when a blatant, albeit necessary, inconsistency between the spoken dialogue and the English subtitles jumped out at me.

That's one reason I both enjoy and dislike watching Chinese movies with English subtitles. Throughout the film, my brain is working double-time as my ears take in the Chinese dialogue while my eyes read the English text. At the same time I'm processing the content of the script and the events that make up the plot, I am also checking for inaccuracies in the translation. It's quite the mental exercise, both stimulating and exhausting... and sometimes annoying, especially when they get it all wrong ("Heyyy, that's not what he said!!"). I suppose that's one of the downsides of being multilingual. There are so many nuances one language has that another does not, that a completely faithful translation (of movies, music, literature, etc.) is impossible. Thus those of us who can understand both sides are given 2 slightly different viewing/listening/reading experiences... and/or a splitting headache.

I read a magazine article recently saying how someone has invented a gadget that can give instant translations of Chinese characters. You just point the thing at the written words and it gives you the English equivalent. The same article went on to say how people are coming up with cell phones that have built-in translators, and computer translators that transmit via radar and can be used for big international gatherings like the UN (each seat will receive the radar transmission in the native language of the occupant-- goodbye to those funny-looking headsets). Perhaps we will live to see a Star Trek-inspired universal translator yet. It would be cool if everyone in the world understood everyone else perfectly, without the awkwardness of misinterpretations or the difficulties of mastering a foreign language. But then again, it would take away the thrill of learning different tongues, and the process of coming to understand and appreciate another culture through its language.

Plus, it would make my being multilingual far less impressive. :p

P.S. Love, love, love Maggie Cheung. She can act circles around Zhang Ziyi, and I find her cold, imperious beauty far more striking than Zhang's fragile, cutesy looks. If I were to pick an actress to play me in a movie, Maggie Cheung would be among my top 3 choices.


At Monday, August 14, 2006, Blogger bi fang said...


I love that movie! We even watched it on a club day last year. The way the characters talk in the movie is really complicated and hard to understand especially if you don't live in china. But I know you're good in mandarin, that’s why you can tell if the translation’s not accurate! I agree that reading the Chinese and English subtitles at the same time is confusing and challenging, but i find it fun because I learn a lot. I always do that when watching cd’s at home.

I've seen one of those features in my friend's computer, Chinese translation appears (complete with examples)whenever you point your mouse on the english words. But no matter how hard they try to create those instant translator gadgets to remove the language barriers, it will never be 100% accurate. A lot of Chinese characters have different meanings when combined with other characters, and even when used in a different context. So using those sites which can translate paragraphs into English might allow you to understand things literally but not necessarily accurately.

By the way, do you know that in my former school, they now use letter grades in Chinese! 哇塞!如果我還在義德中學的話,我不會允許這新的規則!
Imagine my reaction when I heard about this. It just goes to show how the administration is giving importance to the subject. Honestly, I think they should just remove Chinese from the curriculum altogether since graduates from my high school do not, in any way compare to those who graduate from REAL Chinese schools.

At Tuesday, August 15, 2006, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Tashaaaaa! I miss you too! =D

Yes, I also got upset when I heard about the change in the grading system for Chinese. It's really a crying shame, another giant step (leap, actually) backward for what is already a degrading part of the curriculum. I think the administration has effectively passed the death sentence of Chinese in ICA. I wouldn't be surprised if in a decade or so, no ICAn will be able to string together a complete sentence in Chinese.

I guess they should start stocking up on those translator gadgets. :p

At Tuesday, August 15, 2006, Anonymous Jojo said...

The old way of grading Chinese might as well have been a letter grading system, though. Very, very arbitrary. We had one particularly prejudiced old hag of a law shi who took one look at our Filipino classmate and decided that she would never get higher than an 89 no matter how many oral and written tests she aced.

At Tuesday, August 15, 2006, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Then change the teacher, not the grading system. The problem with Chinese schools is that they don't have the heart (or is it balls?) to force old, past-their-prime Chinese teachers into retirement. It's part of the reason the quality of Chinese education is deteriorating. Sad.

At Monday, August 21, 2006, Anonymous Jojojo said...

You know East Asian philosophy. Age = sage. Misplaced veneration in this case :(

At Tuesday, August 22, 2006, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Robina Gokongwei's column in the Philippine Star last weekend featured a transcript of a conversation among some famous ICA alumnae (Tessie Coson, Jullie Yap-Daza, Queena Lee-Chua, etc.) and the 2 MIC sisters (Dina and Tere). Believe it or not, all the married alumnae said the primary reason they sent their daughters to ICA was for the Chinese education. What a laugh.


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