Being lost in translation can be frustrating. You don’t understand something, or you lack the ability to express something, simply because you don’t master a language well enough. You may know the feeling of watching a film in a language you understand with subtitles also being in a language you understand, and the translation seeming a tad off to you. Stefana McClure, an Irish woman living in New York with a past in Japan, knows that all too well. Especially with English films and Japanese translations. But she understands why the translation can seem incorrect. It’s culture.
There’s a cultural discrepancy between France and Japan, or the Netherlands and Japan. The Dutch are quite direct. But in Japan it’s common to finish a sentence with ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’. Japanese people are polite. In Holland doing that all the time will make people think you’re insecure, spineless or a pushover. For a story the subtle differences in translation can make a big difference in how readers or moviegoers experience the story and the characters within. The characters need to be right in the culture they’re translated for, not for the culture the movie was made for.
How does McClure the artist convey this? She puts all the subtitles of a film on top of each other thereby creating slightly blurry white lines on an otherwise monochrome surface. Sounds simple enough. Imagine how much work it is. Each subtitle needs to be copied from the film, and then put on the surface in the exact position as it would be on the screen. Imagine how often you have to press play and pause to get the subtitles of an entire film? And to put them on a sheet of paper in perfect dimensions. In short the work process is as follows: put the translations in a word processor, print each line of subtitles in the correct size, lay the print on the transfer paper, write the subtitles on the paper very very carefully, and continue until the film is done.
The colors of the paper (it’s not painted, the paper in itself is not part of the artistic process in this project) are chosen to suit the film. Black for film noir, red for passionate films or Hitchcocks ‘Mamie’ . McClure used orange for the Dutch film ‘Karakter’ and the Irish film ‘The Crying Game’. Anxiety riven films would get an indigo surface, blue for the BBC series ‘The Blue Planet’ or the film ‘Swimming Pool’. And Japanese films would get shu, a specific type of orange associated with Japan. As with words, colors are subjective as well. And we’re sure these get lost in translation sometimes too.