Not lost in translation

Tokyo Story

January 30, 2004

Reading a screenplay rather than watching the film will always be like smoking without inhaling; ditto for reading a translation rather than the original. The fact that Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) is one of the greatest films of the 20th century does not make Donald Richie and Eric Klestadt's task any easier.

In the illuminating introduction, Richie explains that Ozu's scripts are regarded as literature in Japan as "the degree of verisimilitude and the character delineation achieved is so great and the economy is so extreme that the scripts themselves qualify as works of art".

Still, the authors have produced a translation that shows sensitivity to Ozu and is a welcome contrast to the inaccurate subtitles of versions screened in the UK. For example, when the parents-in-law of the widowed Noriko ask if she is working for the same company, thus conveying their sadness that she must work to support herself, they comment: "It must be hard for a person to be all alone." The subtitles have them say: "You are so clever, earning your own living."

While the translation is accurate, it is incomplete in other ways. The elderly parents, who have come to Tokyo to see their children, speak in a Hiroshima dialect. Their children speak standard, that is to say, Tokyo, Japanese. The problem for the translator is how to express these differences. Richie and Klestadt circumvent this by using standard English throughout, but if Ozu's genius is in his economy of style, then every word he uses becomes ever more valuable and every nuance of speech ever more crucial. To miss out on the differences of speech, and thus the differences of generation, region and outlook they stand for in the film, is a sore loss. The token politeness of the selfish elder daughter in comparison with the parents' gentle formality is so telling that it virtually condemns her out of her mouth, yet this is not adequately conveyed.

The book tries to be both a student text and a keepsake for Ozu aficionados. While students would probably have benefited from a longer critical introduction and footnoting, film lovers are likely to prefer to see the translation used in subtitles, rather than having to watch the film with book in hand.

Hanako Birks is a former Japanese national who works as a publisher's editor in the UK.

Tokyo Story: The Ozu-Noda Screenplay

Author - Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda
Publisher - Stone Bridge Press
Pages - 144
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 1 880656 80 9
Translator - Donald Richie and Eric Klestadt

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