Movie Subtitling: Natsuko Toda

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  • Wednesday, 09 January 2013 09:52

Interview series with Japan’s most renowned translator of foreign films and interpreter for Hollywood stars, Natsuko Toda.

TJ: Can you tell us about how you got started in your career?
Toda: I saw a lot of movies in my school days, and I absolutely loved them. After graduating from Tsuda College, I visited Japanese subtitling pioneer Shunji Shimizu to ask about working in the field of movie subtitling. He said mastering the skill was difficult and there weren’t many opportunities for work in the field. But, I was not discouraged. I chose a non-film industry related job and began working at Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company in the Hibiya area of Tokyo. However, I didn’t abandon my passion for movies. Pretty soon I quit Dai-Ichi Life and began working part-time jobs as a translator. I did all kinds of translations including industrial manuals, magazine articles and books. Eventually, I began doing movie-related translations and dictation for Shimizu sensei, and through this relationship, I was offered the opportunity to interpret at a press conference. It was almost 10 years after I graduated from college before I had the opportunity to be offered the job of subtitling for a Francois Truffaut movie and I was fortunate to have Shimizu Sensei provide advice during that time in my career.

TJ: As we understand it, Francis Ford Coppola provided a stepping stone in your career. Can you tell us how you met Francis Ford Coppola?
Toda: I first met Francis Ford Coppola during the shooting of his 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.” While he was shooting the movie, he made repeated trips between the Philippines and California. He dropped by Japan during these trips as he was a gourmet and also loved hi-tech things. I escorted him around Tokyo. We would walk around Akihabara, which was not today’s clean, modern city, but was an old and dirty town at the time. Among other things, he had immense knowledge about technology, including audio devices, etc. We visited a factory of Sony, a pioneer at the time, to learn about new technology, and NHK (Japan’s public television network) to hear about HD TV. HD TV was just in the developmental stage at the time. I knew nothing about HD, but Mr. Coppola knew a lot about it and wanted to learn more. He was full of curiosity and constantly gathered knowledge about state-of-the-art technology.

TJ: How many movies have you subtitled to date and do you have a goal for how many movies you would like to complete, or how long you would like to continue working?
Toda: I don’t have a specific goal. I have never counted the number of movies I have subtitled. I guess the total is around 1,500 based on the average number of movies I worked on per year. I haven’t been working on as many projects recently as I don’t have the same energy I used to have anymore. Also, there are fewer movies I enjoy. For example, although I am not saying I wouldn’t translate a superhero movie, I’m not young and I don’t feel I am the most suitable choice for subtitling those movies. The movie companies know my preference, so they don’t ask me to work on superhero or horror movies.

TJ: What are the most important factors required for being a f ilm subtitler?
Toda: Although, of course, you need to know English, a much more important factor is your knowledge of the Japanese language. That’s it.

TJ: How do you deal with Japanese censorship?
Toda: It’s a headache. It lessens the quality of the translation, and it’s ridiculous. However, film companies are forced to follow it. I try not to change the wording as much as possible, but sometimes I do discuss it with people from the film companies. Since the restrictions are tougher for TV programs, some subtitles are changed when movies are aired on TV. I think any form of censorship should not be allowed.

TJ: How about four-letter words?
Toda: You can’t translate them into Japanese. We just don’t have expressions like Motherf**ker in our language

TJ: Obviously, English has enhanced your profession. How has English enhanced your life outside your profession?
Toda: English has definitely enhanced my profession, and helped me expand my network of people

TJ: How did you learn English? How did you gain the conf idence to speak English with native speakers of English? Do you think all people can learn English, or is it a special talent you have?
Toda: I had no confidence in my English abilities at all. As I mentioned in my books many times, English education in my school days was limited to reading and writing, but not conversation. Even in my university’s English conversation classes, my responses were limited to ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and then only once or twice a year. I had never gone abroad when I was young. Therefore I had no chance to speak English. Movies were the only way to listen to English, but it was impossible to understand them without a script. So my English listening and speaking abilities were not very good.
During my early days when I was in my thirties before doing subtitling, I was asked to do interpretation at a press conference. It was my first time to speak English in front of a group of people, so I must have been a horrible interpreter. The only reason I could continue was because of my familiarity with movies. Since I loved movies and had a broad knowledge of films, I managed to get through it. English is important, but it isn’t the only tool needed. Even if you speak English fluently, you need to have specialized knowledge of the field to be a professional. In my case, even though my English wasn’t perfect, a broad knowledge of movies helped me in interpreting. tj

Francis Ford Coppola
s_bukley /

Harry Potter Pictured: Daniel Radcliffe Photo Credit: Featureflash /

Battleship Pictured: Peter Berg, Brooklyn Decker and Taylor Kitsch
Photo Credit: Shelly Wall /

Titanic Pictured: Kate Winslet, James Cameron and Leonardo DiCaprio
Photo Credit: Featureflash /

Indiana Jones Pictured: Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas
Photo Credit: Featureflash /

This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.

To order Issue 270, click here.


Written By:

Natsuko Toda

Natusko Toda is the most renowned translator of foreign films in Japan, single-handedly creating the subtitles for major Hollywood movies, and serves as an interpreter when foreign celebrities come to Japan for publicity. After graduating from Tsudajuku University in 1958, Natsuko Toda became a secretary for a life insurance company for a year before leaving to find employment related to the movie industry. She began working as an interpreter in a cinema company and became a pupil of Shunji Shimizu who was experienced at subtitling. She made her debut as a translator in 1970 and has been responsible for subtitling over 1000 movies since then.


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