Movie Subtitling: Natsuko Toda

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

TJ: What is the most common challenge or difficulty that film subtitlers are faced with, and how can this challenge be overcome?
Toda: Practically speaking, having no job is the most difficult situation. Many people want to do subtitling, but job opportunities are limited. Movie companies don’t want to ask someone who has no experience, as they put so much money into the movie. So they usually only ask experienced subtitlers. It’s a vicious circle. You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Getting a job and doing it well is the most important thing. If you fail, you will never be asked again. It’s very hard. I think most people fail because of their lack of Japanese proficiency.

TJ: You’ve been doing this since well before the Internet, so when faced with a situation where the f ilm had subject matter you didn’t understand, how did you learn about it?
Toda: The Internet is wonderful. Before the Internet, we had to rely on dictionaries and encyclopedias. However, you can’t find up-to-date information in encyclopedias, so the Internet helps me a lot.

TJ: Before the Internet, did you ask specialists?
Toda: Yes. Even now I rely on specialists for specific terminology. So as a last resort, we have to ask specialists. But the Internet has replaced encyclopedias and dictionaries for general information.

TJ: We heard you did subtitling for “Valkyrie.” Nazi military ranks were very complicated and diff icult to translate into Japanese. Did you ask a specialist for help?
Toda: The other day I had the opportunity to talk with a member of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. He pointed out that the Japanese translation of U.S. military ranks was wrong in “Top Gun.” However, military ranks don’t match exactly between the U.S. and Japan, so it can’t be helped. Of course, it should be correct. However, the ordinary audience might not necessarily care if someone is a Lieutenant Colonel or a Major. Yes, military ranks are troublesome, not only for the U.S. but also the German and especially the now-extinct Nazi military.

TJ: As we understand it, you have many friends in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and the list goes on. Of all of the Hollywood celebrities you know, who would you say is the most interested in Japanese culture?
Toda:Probably Richard Gere. He is a very pious Buddhist, much more than us Japanese. He is a pupil of the Dalai Lama and is an advocate of him. He even used his personal property to establish an organization to support the Tibetans. He came to Japan to learn about Buddhism, but finally he decided to be a pupil of the Dalai Lama. For him, the aim of visiting Japan is visiting Kyoto temples.

TJ: We know that you often interact with movie actors and directors both when they come to Japan and when you go to the U.S. Can you share with us an interesting experience you had with a celebrity?
Toda:There are too many. All of them are unique. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences with each of them. They say celebrities choose me as an interpreter, but I don’t know if it is true. Film companies ask me to do that, and I don’t know if celebrities have any say in it. But since their movies are not produced by the same company, they are surrounded by strangers at press conferences, etc. each time they come to Japan. So if they find a familiar face, they feel relaxed. That might be the reason they name me.

TJ: Who have you known for the longest period of time?
Toda:Probably Harrison Ford. I knew him even before he appeared in “Star Wars,” but it is not necessarily the length of time. For example, I met Tom Cruise not so long ago. I met him for the first time when he shot “Far and Away.” But he and I have good chemistry, and have been very good friends.

TJ: We understand that you knew and spent time on the set and off with Akira Kurosawa. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Kurosawa and what kind of impression he made on you?
Toda:I knew him, but I was not so close. He was such an intimidating figure. As you know, he was called ‘Emperor Kurosawa,’ and everybody on the set was in awe of him. It is true that the tension produced excellent movies. All of the staff did their best for him. No assistant director was treated as a ‘human being’ on the set. He yelled at them quite a lot. However, he was so gentle, especially with women and outsiders like me. He had a wonderful smile. His smile would really make everybody happy and excited. So personally, he was a gentle and beautiful man to me, but he was intimidating to his staff.

When Richard Gere made a suggestion to him on the set of “Rhapsody in August,” all the staff around them disappeared instantly. His staff would not have had the courage to make suggestions to him, but Richard was used to having discussions among staff on the set in the U.S. So when he expressed his opinion, all the staff around Kurosawa backed away. tj

Courtesy of Featureflash /   Courtesy of cinemafestival /

Harrison Ford
Richard Gere


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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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