Tom Westin Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will be the first glimpse many in this country have had into J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle Earth, populated by elves, wizards and furry-footed hobbits.
The task of conveying the rich, old-style English of Tolkien’s novels to a Japanese audience fell to Natsuko Toda, a translator who for more than 20 years has been Japan’s language link to Hollywood, churning out subtitles for such blockbusters as Apocalypse Now, E.T., Back to the Future and more than 1,000 others, including the recently released Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
And now hobbits. “I had never read the book and was not familiar with the material,” admitted Toda, a freelancer who does 40 to 50 films a year. “Suddenly the film arrived and I had to have it done in a week.”
She received help, however, from Teiji Seta, who translated Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings book trilogy into Japanese, as well as from Japanese Tolkien fans, for whom altering the Master’s words was no trifling matter.
Thankfully, however, she was spared translating the elvish language used in the movie, a task handled instead by a Tolkien expert at Kyorin University.
Toda found similarities in translating both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings for the big screen, though not for the reasons one might expect. Although they are both fantasies, “the background and the language used is totally different,” she said. “Both films are based on very widely read books (that had already been translated into Japanese), so it was not like ordinary films where I could translate freely. The Japanese translator of the Harry Potter books (Yuko Matsuoka) had very definite ideas about how the characters, such as the English schoolmasters, should speak, and I tried to do as much as I could within the limitations of subtitles.”
Although Peter Jackson went to great pains to preserve Tolkien’s original language, Toda felt that the archaic Japanese used in the original translation would be difficult for today’s young people to understand, and that a lighter style would be more appropriate.
Through meetings organized by Herald, the movie’s Japanese distributor, compromises between all parties were reached in January on the language that would end up on screen.
Though Teiji’s book had included literal translations for many of Tolkien’s names and places, Toda favored rendering them into katakana for the movie version.
Gollum, the cave-dwelling creature drawn by the ring’s call, goes by a katakana rendering of his name in the movie, but was known as “gokuri” (the sound made when swallowing) in the book.
Likewise, Aragorn’s nickname of Strider was rendered in katakana, whereas the original translation referred to him as the more poetic “haseyo” (a person who runs fast). Toda worried that while die-hard fans of the book would feel more comfortable with haseyo, the general public would not understand its meaning, let alone be able to read the characters.
“There were many people who wanted to stick to the original Japanese translation,” said Toda, “but some things look really strange on screen. Subtitling isn’t a literal translation and you cannot translate word-for-word.”
The basic rule, she said, is that due to the speed at which most people read, there can be only three to four Japanese characters per second of dialogue, making it a challenge to squeeze vital information into a short space.
“When translated, Japanese tends to be longer than English,” Toda explained, “but subtitling is the reverse; we are trying to make it shorter.”