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Making Language Socially Universal:

Translating, Describing and Subtitling an Oscar-Winning Film
Offers Lessons in Negotiating Cultural Understanding

By Eric Morrison

The Cove is the gripping story of Ric O'Barry's struggle to document the large-scale capture and slaughter of dolphins in the now infamous, fortress-like cove in Japan's tiny village of Taiji. Leading a covert team of technical experts and free divers, O'Barry—who starred in the beloved 1960s TV series Flipper—obtains definitive and graphic evidence of Taiji's brutal fishing practices through dramatic trespasses across barbed wire using disguised cameras and submerged hydrophones. Following the film's release, the subsequent public outcry in four continents led to regulatory reform.

Actor Matt Damon's suave announcement of The Cove as the winner of the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary neglected to reveal the strong undercurrents of controversy, passion and risk undertaken at every stage of production. This includes the backstory of translating, dubbing and video describing the film into Japanese for exhibition to a Japanese public that was almost completely unaware of the dolphin slaughter or the subsequent selling of mercury-laced dolphin, intentionally mislabeled as whale meat, to Japanese consumers.

The film's message is a strong one. Ric O'Barry and his team often speak bluntly and with anger. However, Japanese culture places a heavy emphasis on social harmony, protocol and the importance of preserving “face.” Would a film produced in the deeply intrusive American tradition of exposé collide with the manners and mores in Japan? Could the film's fundamental message be delivered to a Japanese audience without serving up an acrid linguistic aftertaste that might cause viewers to reject it immediately? Significant help in this pursuit was brought by way of the post-production process of dubbing, describing, and subtitling the film in such a way that the language and delivery meshes with Japanese culture.

The producers of The Cove chose New York City–based Bridge Multimedia, a multinational company with extensive experience and resources in managing bicultural and linguistic diversity, to handle the task. Accepting it as both challenging and exhilarating, company president Matthew Kaplowitz explains that there is no direct equivalent in Japanese culture for the “in–your–face indignation” conveyed in the “emotionally charged” film: “We had to be respectful of the underlying cultural sensitivities involved, and the heightened concerns they brought. If we had simply transferred the dialog over to Japanese, it would not tell the story – this could not be a verbatim translation. It was key to respect the purity of the film's vision while honoring the cultural stance of the Japanese people.”

The unifying principle for the team was adapted from “universal design,” the concept that products should be initially engineered to permit utilization by users with diverse requirements. Bridge's experience assisting federal, state, and nonprofit agencies; universities; and enterprise companies in delivering accessible media to persons with wide-ranging sensory and learning disabilities set the stage for applying universal design across cultures through “socially universal language.” Bridge would make the message of The Cove socially universal by capturing the essence of the speakers' intent. The standard for success would revolve around the Japanese audience's connection with the film on both “literacy” and “cultural” levels.

The company began by assembling American and Japanese experts and acting talent that came together to form a cohesive unit that, in some respects, resembled the technical quality and intensity of the operations team featured in the film itself. The Bridge Multimedia team metaphorically formed a “bridge” from Japanese to English, with its members representing a spectrum of technical and content management expertise in bilingual issues, as well as having a solid grounding in the two languages.

Language is universally seen as a prism that fundamentally mediates and shapes thought and cognition. The language/thought divide can be so great that cultures may simply be unable to express certain concepts to one another in anything approaching an understandable equivalent. Kenichiro Takeuchi, Chief Engineer at Bridge, who gained his “cultural reference in Japan” but has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, expresses the magnitude of the language/thought divide for the translation project. “There are so many variables, based on cultural background, age, relationship, symbols of status, male and female gender roles, and the different classes that people belong to. My task, as project director, was to take each one of these aspects into account. The essential factor in socially universal language is respect. Whether you're dealing with innercity youth or the elders of a five thousand year old civilization, each unique manner of communication must be valued.”

Nao Katafuchi, primarily a Japanese speaker and Bridge's lead Japanese translator and Japanese recording director, recognized that the dialog style was as important as the content. In the Japanese language, distinctions between “casual” and “formal” aspects of discourse are paramount. This necessitated applying something of a “sliding scale” method to the translation. In English, scenes with incidental conversations among Ric O'Barry's team and other scenes with town officials display no significant differences in speaking styles, but the Japanese translations varied in style: casual among the crew members, formal when speaking with town officials. “The exclusive use of either the Japanese casual or formal style would not have rung true for the dialog or the description,” Katafuchi explains.

Furthermore, Bridge relied on the professional talent of its Japanese voice actors, allowing them “some leeway” to express their sense of each speaker's original expression in order to obtain naturalistic, insightful speech. “Idioms and speech patterns change all the time,” Katafuchi explains. “Using native Japanese speakers ensured that we ended up with something that tracks the way people really speak extemporaneously in Japanese.”

There was also the matter of subtitling to consider. Captioning and subtitling is constrained by rules relating to how quickly characters can be read and how long they can remain on screen before the scene changes, often necessitating a reduced “script” relative to that used in dubbing. A complex interplay between the English, dubbed, described and subtitled versions therefore had to be artfully orchestrated – especially given the powerful intentionality of the musical and visual aesthetics in The Cove. The pruning of dialog was handled carefully, with attention given to Japanese linguistic conventions – the logic and structure of English could not be used for the editorial “scissors.” Opportunities were also afforded by the skillful use of Japanese idioms that had close meaningful–not literal–equivalents to English colloquialisms. Similarly, Bridge recognized that modern Japanese has integrated many English terms and phrases that could be used judiciously but directly to economize on precious screen and description space.

Translation work also capitalized on known Japanese experiences as points of entry. As Katafuchi elucidates, “Japan has a long history of anime cartoons, so many Japanese people are really familiar with watching characters speak in specific styles relating to various languages.” He further adds that there is a tradition of “well–made Japanese documentaries that have been critical of historical events and even the government, so that element wasn't something that would be particularly foreign to the Japanese audience.”

The Cove was, perhaps expectedly, initially rejected by the important and prestigious Tokyo International Film Festival, underscoring the depth of the controversial nature of the subject on its face. However, pressure from stakeholders in international communities and even from the entertainment industry in Hollywood was brought to bear, and ultimately the film even opened the festival.

Japanese reaction to the film, viewable through commentary on various websites, including Greenpeace Japan, suggests Bridge Multimedia's efforts at linguistic transparency did succeed. The principals involved in the practices on dolphins on which the film centers are appropriately incensed and feel the film is “one-sided,” while the general Japanese public evinces a wide spectrum of responses, from surprise about the marketing of dolphin meat (which is generally not considered a food item in Japan), to outright support for dolphin rights, to concern over the filmmaker's lack of proper permissions to film the slaughter. There is no evidence of “blowback” relative to comprehension of the translation, only genuine consideration and debate that demonstrate genuine engagement—the very purpose of the film.

Kaplowitz reflects, “It's always exciting to be involved with socially significant projects, but The Cove was important for a number of reasons. It really allowed us to explore and develop the idea of socially universal communication, which I believe will be very useful in future international projects. Films such as The Cove have global messages, and they can't be allowed to get lost in cultural translation.” Takeuchi sums up that the real “take away” is to “strive for socially universal language that is consistent with the sensibilities of the people who are watching the content, rather than the sensibilities of the persons who are writing it.”

Eric Morrison serves as Department Chair for Academic Skills at Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona. Eric has served the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) as a two-term state chapter president in Arizona and has published on disability in various periodicals. Among Eric's varied interests is the role technology plays in human cognition and activity.

Bridge Multimedia develops accessible technology and produces accessible content. Bridge has described and captioned programming in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

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