Translation and Meaning in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

There’s a lot to talk about in this movie- the gender dynamics between Jen, Mu Bai, and Shu Lien, the utterly fascinating and contradictory character of Jen herself, etc. But what interests me most of all is the fact that this film was, obviously, not written or filmed in English. Personally I had the strange experience of watching it both dubbed and subbed, and the two translations were entirely different.

With any translation, much will be left to interpretation. Here, though, the opposing work of two different interpreters created a lot of fascinating contradictions. Some were comic (“fried rice” in the dub somehow became “fried ribs” in the subtitles), but some altered the meaning of lines or invented new ones entirely. A few examples, from the early conversations between Jen and Shu Lien:

SHU LIEN: (dub) Congratulations. To get married is a joyous event.

(sub) It’s the most important step in a woman’s life, isn’t it?

And later:

JEN: (dub) I suppose I’m happy to be marrying. But when the choice is yours, to choose a certain life, and when you’re free to choose whom to love and how to love him- That’s real happiness.

(sub) Marriage is a good thing. If only I could be free to live my own life, to choose who I love and love him in my own way. That’s real happiness.

It seems to me that particularly in the second translation, much is different. The subtitles turn Jen’s ambitions into wishes, and to me there is a difference; by turning the line into a lament for personal freedom the translation takes away a part of her agency, making her seem to bemoan her lack of options. It’s an example of the effect translation can have in altering dialogue’s meaning.

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One thought on “Translation and Meaning in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  1. This reminds me of a newsclip I watched a while back. It was a woman narrating her rape by her supervisor and his friends. She was not speaking English but because it was the English news, subtitles were offered… And the entire time I watched, I kept saying “That’s not what she’s saying!” I complained about it and was told that I was being nitpicky, that the general idea was the same in the translation.

    I think that different languages come with different ideologies from their cultural structures (since every language is tied to a group of people). It could be said that these ideologies can affect translation, which is unfortunate when the actors cross over because their agency is then subject to a different set of rules.

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