A masterless Samurai, like a boss

Toshiro Mifune's character, a masterless Samurai (ronin) in Yojimbo (1961) walking toward a gang from one of the two local crime syndicates in the middle of a turf war.

One of my favorite courses in my Japanese undergraduate degree was called the Life and Films of Akira Kurosawa. We spent an entire quarter watching Kurosawa’s films, many of which were period films (aka Samurai genre) but not all.  I'll admit, it was the one class that a few of us hit the pub before attending.

I still have my textbook for the class, and I think it’s been updated twice since the class. Here’s the link (link to Amazon).

Listening to Samurai speaking fast or when speaking in deep, throaty command voice (aka grunts), is actually about the same level of difficulty as listening to high school boys or girls talking on the trains in Japan. The speed of language, intonation, and even the dialect (my wife and kids speak in Kansai dialect most of the time) can be a little challenging. I think my favorite Kurosawa film of all time is Yojimbo (link to movie in US iTunes store) in English called “The Guardian”- and the same film that a Fistful of Dollars was based on. Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin - a wandering masterless Samurai - who walks into a town in the middle of a war between two crime lords and their underlings. The film is hilarious, from the stressed out coffin maker who can't keep up with the damage, and Mifune's chill, brilliant Samurai character who doesn’t talk much at all throughout the movie.

When I was researching a question on Quora about translating movies like this where Samurai tend to talk fast, and seemingly grunt a lot, I found an interesting 14-page article called Subtitles and Audiences: The Translation and Global Circulation of the Films of Akira Kurosawa. You can buy the article here. (link).

When I’ve done some translation for books, magazines or videos that have no subtitles, and I always start by listening and writing what I hear first in Japanese. I’ll quality check my Japanese capture with a native Japanese speaker (someone patient!) and then after that, the translation begins! To me, translation isn’t about putting it into a robot like Google translate. It’s more about understanding context and nuance, and trying to recreate the native language meaning in the desired target language. It’s exhausting, to be sure. I have a lot of respect for people who do it professionally!

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Toshiro Mifune is the man.