Unusual translations are a normal part of life in Bangkok, which can usually be passed off as legitimate acts of well-meaning people getting lost in translation when trying to communicate in a second language. However, as a movie and TV series fan (as well as a professional Thai to English translator in a Bangkok translation service), I couldn’t help but jump into the recent talk of the town of the past couple of weeks on the scandal of The Martian.
My favourite Thai TV series, “Hormones” is an addictive drama series about high school students in Bangkok…you know…school, puppy love, teachers, parents etc. In a recent episode a student caught her English teacher translating the term “full of hot air” to mean ‘angry’, rather than ‘talking nonsense’. Given the hierarchical nature of Thai schools, rather than being rewarded for pointing out this error, the teacher scolded the student. This is not uncommon at all and I have experienced it before. Isn’t it a scary state of affairs when the teacher is teaching the wrong thing to students without consequence? But it’s just fiction, right?
I’ve long heard rumours that once Thai subtitle translators become famous they start to outsource translation services, so we often end up with up ‘holy shit!’ getting translated literally, rather than metaphorically, as something along the lines of ‘sacred feces’. And this type of thing certainly seemed to be the case with The Martian. I read that the subtitles had spelling mistakes, as well as a mix of awkward and completely wrong English to Thai translations that made the Thai script nonsensical. I was so surprised when it was revealed that the subtitle translation was done by one of the most well-known English to Thai subtitle translators in Thailand, I have seen her work before and she is usually excellent. I couldn’t believe it was possible for her to have produced such garbage.
I needed to see the movie myself to know just how bad it really was so I went to watch it in the cinema. My thought was, wow this movie is great…and very technical! I wouldn’t want to do the translation for this. Even though I can speak and translate English, I wouldn’t look forward to translating astronauts’ terminology or advanced scientific language. I was so into the movie (and Matt Damon) that I didn’t read the subtitles most of the whole time, but I did spot some non-technical bits that were unforgivably bad translations. There were a lot of literal translations, such as ‘yeah yeah’ which is just the acknowledgment ‘uh uh’, being translated as ‘chai chai’ – a pretty formal way to say ‘correct correct’.
The translator later came out very fiercely against her critics, refusing to accept her error and saying she translated it her way, which is fine with her – saying that she has her reasons for translating the way she does and accusing her critics of ganging up on her. This is an all-too-familiar Thai loss of face reaction, which inevitably takes the form of cognitive dissonance. Similar to the teacher scolding her student in Hormones for pointing out her error, she is doubling down despite clear evidence that she’s made a mistake. We all make mistakes, it’s normal. But most of our mistakes aren’t broadcast on large screens all over the country for millions of people to see. I am lucky that I don’t need the subtitles, but I would be very frustrated if I paid to sit through a mistaken-ridden translation of a movie.
This whole thing kinda shook me. How could they not see the mistakes? Does nobody proofread Thai to English subtitle translations? Why not use one of the multiple Bangkok translation service companies? This was a box office movie shown in proper cinemas we are talking about here, and not just a pirate DVD with dodgy subtitle generated by some translation program, although those DVDs do produce some hilarity.
With the AEC approaching in a couple of months, Thailand is really going to fall behind our neighboring countries if mistakes like this are allowed to happen at the top of our society. This translation issue points to wider concerns. How can we communicate effectively with our new partner countries if we cannot be confident of our language abilities? Are there going to be diplomatic issues caused by translation issues? We are perhaps lucky there are no nuclear weapons in the AEC.
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