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Lost in Translations April 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Japan, Other, Science Fiction, speculative fiction.

My lovely wife told me yesterday that she couldn’t find the post on Ultraman on my blog.  I had to tell her that that was because I hadn’t finished it yet.  My son and I have been watching old episodes of Ultraman, which we have been renting from Netflix.  And I intended to start a series of posts about this latest interest, but the fact is, I’m having some trouble with it.

For those who didn’t grow up with Ultraman, the show is basically a series of abbreviated Japanese monster movies (less than 30 min long) that were dubbed in English and imported to the U.S.  In a typical episode a monster appears and begins to wreak havoc, the elite Science Patrol attempts to dispatch the monster, then Ultraman steps in to save the day.  My brother and I watched the show for a while when we were the age my son is now (nine), back in the early 1970s. 

Here’s a picture:


I’m having trouble posting about the show, though, because I’m extremely confused about what to make of it all.  The first hurdle is the fact that the DVD lapses in and out of English at odd moments.  Since it is a DVD, I just turned on the subtitles (my son is a pretty fast reader).  This unearthed a new dimension to making sense out of the show, though.  The subtitles are radically different from the English dubs.  Take the theme song, for example, which has an early-1960s surf music feel to it.  The English dubbing goes like this:

Ultraman, Ultraman, here he comes from the sky,
Ultraman, Ultraman, watch our hero fly.
In a superjet he comes from a billion miles away.
From a distant planet-land,
comes our hero Ultraman.
[repeat first verse]

Incredibly insipid, yes, and there are problems with what little is reported: 

  1. Ultraman did not come in a “superjet.”  He was chasing a monster and crashed into Hayata’s VTOL jet crashed, and saved Hayata by absorbing him and becoming him.  I guess that one could argue that Hayata came in a superjet, but not from a billion miles away.  Hayata came from Science Patrol headquarters, which seems to be near Tokyo.  Ultraman came from the M-78 nebula, which can be seen in the constellation Orion (RA: 5:47, Dec: 0:03), which is 1.6 thousand light years away.  So, it is like 9.4 quadrillion (thousand trillion) miles away, which screws up the meter of the song.  But it is not as if it would be screwing up perfection.
  2. “distant planet-land.”  That’s just bad writing–word chosen to rhyme with “man.” 
  3. Our hero doesn’t “come from the sky.”  With a couple of notable exceptions, like the episode where Hayata has to jump off a building to reach his beta capsule, Ultraman appears standing firmly on the ground.  Then he sometimes flies around.  He exits by flying away, but only as a cover to keep Hayata’s dual identity secret. 

The subtitles to the theme music are very different, much more cryptic, and much more interesting: 

The emblem on the chest is a shooting star.
With the pride-worthy jet, shoot the enemy.
From the Land of Light, for our sakes,
he has come, our Ultraman.
The capsule in hand, Flashes Sparkling
It’s a shine of one million watts.
From the Land of Light, for justice’s sake,
he has come, our Ultraman.

The subtitled version is problematic, too.  Watts, for example, are not units of luminousity, they are units of power.  Light is measured in lumens, a common American confusion, because we purchase lightbulbs according to wattage.  (The reason we do that has more to do with heat generated by the things than their light output, but these are closely related with incandescent bulbs, of course.) 

But mostly we are left with more questions.  Why is the emblem a shooting star?  “Our sakes”?  Justice’s sake”?  Is that sake, with a long A sound and silent “e”, or sake, like the rice wine?  Why is “Flashes Sparkling” capitalized? 

The theme music is just the easiest thing to point to with regard to the dual translation problem.  The dubbing and the subtitles are constantly at odds in unexpected ways.  I could just examine these episodes based on the reactions of ill-informed American pre-teens.  But everytime I think about this show now I get caught up with the additional questions that the dual translations reveal. 

I’m paralyzed, but in a good way. 


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