you're reading...


How to make “blah-blah-blah” mean something

A Midsummer's Okinawan Dream

A Midsummer's Okinawan Dream 真夏の夜の夢

In 2008, I subtitled a film called A Midsummer’s Okinawan Dream. As the title suggests, it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in modern day Okinawa, directed by Yuji Nakae (Hotel Hibiscus). The film presented me with arguably the most difficult subtitle I’ve ever had to write.

The film opens with Okinawan fairies called Kijimun singing of the history of this particular island, starting with the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom and how they had long guarded the island and its human inhabitants. They do so in an archaic Ryukyu language that is incomprehensible to today’s Japanese; hence, the Japanese release features Japanese subtitles for these sections. Though I typically avoid using “Fakespeare” in my subtitles, I felt that this was one instance when using Shakespearean language would be appropriate. It would convey the archaic nature of the language spoken while also referencing the original text from which the film is adapted. To pull this off, I re-read some Shakespeare and studied the unique syntax in his style. This, though, wasn’t the hard part.

Towards the end of this song, an elderly Kijimun sings, “nani ga nanishite nantoyara.” In Japanese, this sounds more or less like “blah-blah-blah,” and loosely translates to “this and that happened.” The producer wrote a helpful footnote explaining what this is referring to: “The Ryukyu Kingdom eventually collapsed and was conquered by Japan before becoming a battleground during World War II, after which it was occupied by the U.S. and then eventually returned to Japanese rule. This history of transition is what’s being referred to here.” Great.

So how should one take “blah-blah-blah” and make it refer to anything close to what the producer explained?

First, I skipped this section and subtitled the rest of the film. I then came back and spent half a day mulling it over. What I eventually came up with is the following:

What tempest brought
By turbulent tides!

What I tried to do is evoke the tumultuous history of the island being invaded by outside forces without spelling out the actual historical events. I did this with imagery, in this case the metaphor of stormy waves crashing onto its shores. I was also glad to have been able to use alliteration, mimicking the na alliteration in the original. Finally, I managed to work in a reference to another Shakespeare title.

To this day, no single subtitle has given me as much fits as this one did. In the end, though, it taught me something valuable. Creative subtitles can often use imagery to evoke that which is difficult or impossible to do with a more literal translation. Whenever I run into problematic dialogue that seems impossible to subtitle, I try to think back to this half-day battle and remember the lesson learned.





A Midsummer's Okinawan Dream

A Midsummer's Okinawan Dream 真夏の夜の夢




What tempest brought
By turbulent tides!




Bookmark this on Hatena Bookmark
Hatena Bookmark - How to make “blah-blah-blah” mean something
Share on Facebook
Post to Google Buzz
Bookmark this on Yahoo Bookmark
Bookmark this on Livedoor Clip
Share on FriendFeed


One Response to “How to make “blah-blah-blah” mean something”

  1. Oh wow. I could never have come up with those lines…Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Btw, this weekend, I got the chance to see “Abraxas” at the Zipangu Fest in London. Great subtitles!

    Posted by Mari Amano | November 22, 2011, 5:49 am

Post a Comment