Sloar vs Toad

So I was watching Ghostbusters with Japanese subtitles on, and I noticed something interesting in the scene where Louis (the Keymaster) arrives at GHQ and catches Egon up on what's going on.

Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldronaii, the Traveler came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrix supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Sloar! Many Shubs and Zulls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day, I can tell you!

Here are the subtitles for this rant (by Toda Natsuko, natch), with literal English backtranslation.

ゴーザがある形をとって現れる/ ボルド人を破滅させた時は巨大なナメクジ/ マケトレ人の第3回征服の時は—/ 口から火を噴くイボガエル/ マケトレ人はその炎に焼かれてマケた

Gozer will come in a certain form/ When he destroyed the Vuld people, it was a giant slug/ At the third subjugation of the Maketore people/ It was a fire-breathing toad/ Roasted in the flames, the Maketore people were defeated (maketa)

It still provides the same plot info (Gozer is coming, apocalypse will follow), but the humor has been almost entirely removed. A nerd getting all worked up about "Torbs" and "Sloars," that's comedy. The scraps of context are menacing, but the words are gibberish. Close that gap, and it just sounds like a lazy attempt at myth-making.

Also note that the gloating remark about Shubs and Zulls being "roasted in the depths of the Sloar," one of my favorite in the film (although I only just now learned how to spell all the words in it) has changed into a straight-up and rather forced pun.

Why would Toda do this? Granted that her position in the industry means that she can do pretty much anything she wants, whenever she wants, I do think that she had a specific goal in mind here: to avoid throwing too many made-up words at the reading audience at once. X-jin might get a pass because it can immediately be understood as an ethno- or demonym (whether you know what X is or not), but "Sloar" is tougher: What did that subtitle say, "Sloar"? Is that a real thing? Sounds Dutch, maybe... And you know that the audience was busy enough during this movie's theatrical release, buying hypercolor sweaters and visiting the newly-opened Tokyo Disneyland.

(Confession: I myself as a child assumed that the peoples and things featured in the Keymaster's ravings would be found in a sufficiently comprehensive reference work. I also thought that "Stay Puft" was a real brand of marshmallows available in the faraway and exotic United States of America.)

Just for kicks, I checked out the dubbed version of this line and found that it was much closer to the original:

時を旅する者、ゴーザがこの世界に現れるのだ。かつてバルドロナイを征服した時、ゴーザは巨大なトーブに姿を変えた。そして、メケトリックスの嘆願に応じ、三度目の和解が実現した時、新しい姿となった——巨大なスローアだ! シャブやズールの多くがその時のスローアの恐ろしさを今も語りぐさとしている。

Gozer, the Traveler in Time, will appear in this world. When in the past he subjugated the Vuldronaii, Gozer changed his form to a giant Torb. Then, when in response to the supplications of the Meketrix the third reconciliation was realized, he took a new form: that of a giant Sloar! Many a Shub and Zull tells tales even now of the horror of the Sloar that day.

Also, during the party scene at Louis's place, Toda saw fit to translate "Twister" as "group-sex game" (乱交ゲーム). Dude! I know that it got called "sex in a box" back in the 60s, but...

Popularity factor: 24


I remember watching this on VHS in Japan with a group of friends a couple years back. I considering having a drink for each mistranslation, but I didn't want to have to sleep on my friend's floor that night.


Unfortunately, the subtitle translator's world (if that exists) in Japan is basically controlled by a "chosen few" like her. After they got noticed by some heavyweights in the industry, the rest goes as smooth like a whipped cream on top of the mochacino latte at the starbucks. I even doubted she had really translated the whole thing by herself. (There are lots of aspiring translators who are longing to do the job without being paid.)
But, in LofR's case, some enthusiastic fans of the original story sent petition to the film distribution company and, if I remembered it correctly, they end up making new subutitles for the DVD version. Voices of people must be heard, even some might think it would be too trivial to deal with. People raise their voice because the triviality means a lot to them. And I am one of them who really cares and sometimes just roll eyes for such sorts when the translator seems to miss what's behind the picture or intention of the acting/lines.


And how was the voice acting for the dubbed version? I generally find Japanese dubs far more satisfying than subs (the opposite from English) because the voice actors here get really into their parts. Maybe this is because voice acting in general is more respected here in an anime culture?


The number of characters you can stick on the screen for moviegoers to read each second is far more limiting than the number you can throw at them in dubbed dialogue. Translating a movie for subtitling and doing it for dubbing are two completely separate things, and I think you're conflating them in your post here. It's not fair to the people who do this work.

Toda and her ilk are not without sin when it comes to making stupid mistakes in rendering the meaning (some of my faves: 指輪をくれ for "give me a ring" and 私はアメリカにいた for "I was in a state" in, I believe, "Four Weddings and a Funeral") but the problems you outline in this post seen to fall squarely in the category of "if we translate all this literally, nobody will be able to read quickly enough to get through it all while Rick Moranis is blazing through his lines in this scene."


It's very nice of you to point out the character limitation/time duration.
That is a given in subtitle translation. And, as you have already known, you don't translate the original language word by word as the novels or other printed media. (Dubbed version could be closer to the original but still it needs a little trick to work with the difference in word orders.)
Yet, as a moviegoer, I personally found there were two major issues in this case.

1. Supervision of the Subtitles
If Ms. Toda was asked to make the lines of Rick Moranis more comedic than the original script regardless of what he was exactly delivering at the scene, she should not be blamed for the "sin." The one to be blamed for was the producer of the subtitled version. The distribution company must take responsibility to check whether the translation fitted for the work. Recent major Hollywood films are getting stricter than what it was in the "Ghostbusters" days in the aspect.
It is quite obvious that there was virtually little or no checking on the translation.
Although I admire Ms. Toda as a pioneer in the field who had made a lot of good translations in the past, the system, or nobody-should-disturb-the-Sensei sort of attitude, must be questioned at some point.

2. Translation vs. Editing
Subtitle translation in any language is much closer to editing job rather than translating. In a nutshell, it's a work of discerning what to be cut off for saving the core and tone of the line in the scene.
Especially when translating E to J, you have to go through the process of creating minimalistic art due to the limitation of the characters.

***For Reference****
1 second = 24 frames (for most movies/for tv's and some digital formats-> 30 frames) per second = 4 Japanese characters
Limited character number per one line -> 12 for horizontal (10 for vertical) max.
->2 horizontal subtitle lines = maximum number for subtitles to be shown at once = 24 characters = 6 seconds (approximately)

It makes me feel jittery when big names in the field seem to disregard the context in the plot or the situation in the movie; in other words, "insensitivity" in selecting the words. Sometimes you are surprised to see there has no decent research been done for the words. Yes, you have to "edit" the words, but, no, you can't change a line out of context. In this case, it looks to me that Ms. Toda has done more than just a translation.
I guess that should not be taken light of.

*It’s a far cry of a low-ranked translator (=me) ; I edited the subtitles as below, mix'n'mashing Ms. Toda's work and the dubbed script.

Gozer the Traveler. He will come in
one of the pre-chosen forms. (dur. approximately 00:03.23)

During the rectification of the Vuldronaii,
the Traveler came as a large and moving Torb! (dur. approximately 00:04.26)

Then, during the third reconciliation of
the last of the Meketrix supplicants,
they chose a new form for him: (dur. approximately 00:04.92)

that of a giant Sloar! (dur. approximately 00:01.54)

Many Shubs and Zulls knew what it was
to be roasted in the depths of
the Sloar that day, I can tell you! (dur. approximately 00:04.25)


P.S. Twister game as "乱交ゲーム”is just too much. It could be simply put as "ゲーム”(or "ツイスターゲーム”if the duration allows)probably with 強調点 above each カタカナ for the underlying motive.


I don't know, Durf, I think I was pretty fair. Number of characters is not a concern-- トーブ and スロア/スローア are both shorter than what replaced them. So really it can only be that someone (maybe Toda, maybee an editor/producer) either didn't get the joke (thought the words were real and didn't want to be laughed at for not knowing their actual translations, so chose entirely different words to avoid detection) or, as I suggested, thought the joke was too dense to work in subtitles and handily simplifiable. I would disagree, but then, I read quickly and value this kind of humor highly. And as Elbow notes 乱交ゲーム is really unforgivable.

Elbow: Thanks for the detailed commentary. Do you do this professionally?

Daniel: Yeah, as usual it was some high-quality voice acting, but (also as usual) in that same set of "stock voices." Louis sounded more weasely than dorky, etc.


Hey Matt!!!
what are you doing?!
just let me know how you are doing!


The other restriction in play is the time limit for subtitle translators. I heard somewhere that they get less than two weeks to crank out the titles for a whole movie. I don't know if that is true, but lack of time to properly check a translation will lead to goofy errors.

Whether or not a complete miss like 乱交ゲーム qualifies as just a goofy error is another question.


I always assumed Stay Puft was a real brand of marshmallows too, until I read your post!


Thank you for pointing out the scheduling aspect of subtitle translation. In most of usual and decent cases in subtitle translation for works for theatrical/cinema releases in Japan, it takes at least a month from my experience (J to E). In other words, if it has time limit like 2 weeks or less for the completion, you must doubt there is something gravely wrong with the work’s show schedules plus the producer’s intention of checking the subtitles to begin with. Many of the works with time-crunching schedules which often are straight-to-DVD or only-on-CATV titles have been translated by nameless (or non-celebrity) translators with 1/2 (if you are lucky) to 1/6 (if you are unlucky) of regular remuneration.
In this case, even if the schedule was less than a month, she could have asked her apprentices to work for rough draft, or not to start the work from the scratch by herself, to lighten the burden on her side and concentrating on perfecting the final result. As far as the “system” or old-fashioned practices in the industry remain as of now, some other flops or goofy mistakes due to negligence on the production side will be found in future.

Sorry for taking up so much space with my comment. I am a translator who would like to do E to J subtitles for major film of my interest but have only done some of J to E subtitles for cinematic releases and inconspicuous E to J subtitles for this and that on CATV programs.


In other words, if it has time limit like 2 weeks or less for the completion, you must doubt... ->In other words, if it has time limit like 2 weeks or less for the completion, you must suspect...

Aye! Such a textbook Japanese-ish faux pas!

Sgt Tanuki:

You know, I've just been reading up a little on this subject (subbing/dubbing in the Japanese film industry) for a class. A film scholar named Abe Mark Nornes has a couple of chapters on the subject in his recent book Cinema Babel. Fascinating stuff.

For instance, he talks about how the abovementioned 4 characters per second rule was arrived at - the rumor in the industry, at least, is that it resulted from, way back in the early talkie era, showing subtitled films to geisha and seeing how fast they could read, and then reducing that a little to compensate for off-center projection (so no characters would be cut off at the edge).

I.e., his point is that subtitling practice in Japan (and elsewhere, no doubt) is governed by fairly arbitrary convention, not necessarily by any compunction toward accuracy, and that when the question of "fidelity" to the source enters into it, it's not the script (i.e., the words spoken) that the subtitlers are trying to be faithful to, but things like the actors and the impression they make, supposedly, through their voices (as distinct from what they say).

He goes farther, but the upshot is that after reading him I suspect that this was less a case of Toda making a mistake, or even throwing up her hands in despair at being unable to capture the subtlety of the film's humor, than a case where the whole apparatus of subtitling made her unlikely to want to try very hard to capture the humor here. It just wouldn't have crossed her mind. (He takes Toda pretty specifically to task.)

Anyway, good book. He has interesting things to say about dubbing practices in Japan too. (Disclaimer: I'm not Nornes in disguise, and I don't know him personally. I'm not trying to plug his book. I just thought it was interesting.)

Vilhelm S:

Wow, reading Elbow's suggested translations really bring home how low-bandwidth Japanese subtitles are...

If they fixed the 4 characters/second rule in the early talkies era, then it really seems like the time is right for some renewed usability studies. These seems to be lots of factors that could have influenced reading speed since then -- the new kanazukai for one!


There was a poster session at an Association for Asian Studies several years ago about reading speed with kanji... only for us 外人 tho. Still, what with all the ink spilled about the Death of the Japanese Language, you'd figure someone's written a pean to how with kanji you can read something faster, somewhere.

Cinema Babel is apparently a book to check out. Good to know.

(Sometimes the standard stock voices make a movie better. The Mummy 2 being a prime example.)

But Matt, when will you do your analysis of the translation job on The Simpsons?


Ah, my magnum opus? The current plan is to publish 7 volumes (Apu-Disco Stu) of a projected 30 while alive, and then direct my executors to prepare two or three posthumous supplements from my notes.

Elbow (and others): Long comments are always welcome here, don't worry.

Sgt Tanuki: Often the answer to this sort of issue seems to be "Well, the subtitling industry (or this specific subtitler) just sucks"... it's probably even true in a lot of cases. I guess the contrast of "attempt to render fictional demonyms" + "complete abandonment of fictional creatures" struck me as odd here. I will definitely check out that book, though!

Professor Hazard:

There is, of course, a comprehensive guide such as the one that you mention: Tobin's Spirit Guide. Egon references it often.


My favorite adventure in creative Japanese subtitling is the first 30 minutes of "Full Metal Jacket". I sympathize with the translator, I really do.


After finishing my little pet-project on making Japanese subtitles for Watership Down, I had a lot more respect for subtitle translation, and am much less prone to criticize the translator's choices.

Although if you want some laughs due to *really* bad subtitles, check out
this page on poor quality anime fansubs.

Sgt Tanuki:


I've actually seen Full Metal Jacket w/J subtitles, but I'm ashamed to say I wasn't paying attention. But the Nornes book actually talks a lot about that particular example, so I found myself wanting to see it again.


I haven't read Nornes' translation book - should check it out.

There is an anime called Full Metal Panic - Fumoffu (you should be able to find it streaming) that has a Full Metal Jacket Gunnery Sergeant parody episode (rugby coaching...) - perhaps you should give that a look should you decide to give the Full Metal Jacket subs another go.


Might as well take this opportunity to share my favorite anime fansub moment -


Vilhelm S:

@Derek: That page is fantastic. My favourite is this one.




Now this is how you translate Full Metal Jacket.

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