Friday, 11 August 2017

Of Borrowers and Borrowings - Catherine Butler

In an ABBA post last year the accomplished ClĂ©mentine Beauvais wrote about her experience of translating her young-adult novel, Les Petites Reines, into English as Piglettes. (If you haven’t read Piglettes yet, why not? It’s great! In fact, you should go out to the bookshop right now, buy it, read it, then come back and finish this post. You can thank me in the comments.) It was of special interest to me because translation is a subject I think about a lot, though not as a practitioner. In fact, I've spent much of this summer considering similar questions to those with which Dr Beauvais grappled.

You probably know (or know of) the classic 1952 Mary Norton novel The Borrowers, about a family of small people living in secret in the crannies of a large house. Perhaps you’ve also watched Studio Ghibli’s version of the story, Arrietty, named after the girl Borrower at the heart of the story? Naturally, Ghibli’s film was made in Japanese; the studio also moved the story from Bedfordshire to the suburbs of Tokyo. When it was subsequently dubbed into English, two versions were made, one (by Studio Canal) with a British cast and one (by Disney) with Americans – the latter being named The Secret World of Arrietty. Normally Ghibli dubs only exist in American English, something that can make for a strange experience when the original story is set in Britain (I’m looking at you, When Marnie Was There). Arriety's double-dubbing is unique, and it made me wonder what differences there might be between the two versions. So, I went and looked.

Having seen my own early novels Americanised for publication (paper rounds changing silently into a paper routes, a massacre of “u”s in words like “rumour”, an inserted sentence to explain just who Guy Fawkes was, etc.), I expected that the differences would be at this relatively low level. In fact, though, the English-language films diverge far more radically, and in a variety of ways.
  •         The American Arrietty is much sassier. Unlike her British and Japanese counterparts, for example, when her mother tells her to be careful, instead of promising she will she replies by teasing her: "Don’t worry Mother, I’ll get Papa back safely."
  •         Where the UK version follows Ghibli in leaving the ending of the film open, with the Borrowers voyaging to an uncertain new life in the outdoors, Disney adds a voiceover assuring viewers that they are going to be all right.
  •         An environmental speech about extinction was cut from the Disney film entirely, because (as the Disney screenwriter told me in an interview) environmentalism doesn’t play well with American audiences.

Even visuals are interpreted differently. For example, in the Japanese film (and British dub), Arrietty’s mother asks Arrietty and her father to take a cube of sugar from the house when they go borrowing. She then looks skyward, clasping her hands and anticipating the delicious taste of the drink she plans to make with it. In the American version of the film, this gesture is reframed as a Christian prayer…

"I could make shiso juice it’s delicious in tea." (Ghibli’s script)

"Oh, please God, please help them." (Disney script)

There’s much more to say about Arrietty in all its versions, but space is limited. Instead, I’ll add a tangential postscript and mention that last month in Tokyo I went to see Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the new film by the director of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Like the earlier films, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on a British children’s book, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (1971). Unlike them, however, its setting has not been transplanted to Japan. Judging by the architecture and landscape, the characters in Mary and the Witch’s Flower are living in England, indeed in Shropshire (the setting of the book). Of course, the characters still speak Japanese, which takes a little getting used to, but when they write things down they write them in English, which somehow seems even odder. Their clothes are plausibly British, too – with one bizarre exception. That’s Mary’s friend Peter, who in the book is the son of the local vicar. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower he wears a backwards baseball cap and a Varsity jacket, as if he had just wandered in from a college campus somewhere near Indianapolis. I really can't imagine why:

Can you?

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