Language, Movie review, Multiculturality

Bad writing, bad translations

Alicia and I made the mistake of watching The Colony the other night. It was stupid! I should have checked Rotten Tomatoes first: “A formulaic sci-fi thriller, The Colony features cliched dialogue, cheesy special effects, and underdeveloped characters.”

Future Ice Age people living underground deal with illness, internal conflicts, and devolved cannibals while searching satellite images for a warmer place.

Trust me, it’s not as good as it sounds. The following are not spoilers, because the movie already stinks:

• There are dozens of cannibals running around together. They communicate by roars like zombies, but they’re fast, and intelligent enough to use the air duct system to break into a locked colony. But when half of their group gets killed in action, the other half doesn’t collect the bodies.

• They abandon a room full of dead colonists to chase after the main character and invade his colony.

• They kill as fast as they can rather than taking prisoners so they can have fresh meat later.

• When the main character clubbed the top cannibal (a White Orc ripoff) to the ground and started to walk away, Alicia said, “He’s going to grab his foot.” Sure enough, a second later, the battered and bleeding cannibal grabbed the dude’s ankle, and they fought some more.

• After the final battle in which the cannibals are destroyed but the colony is severely damaged, the survivors immediately start walking north to look for the oasis (a small warm spot created by a revived weather intervention tower), instead of checking for other survivors and whether anything can be salvaged from their greenhouse, animal cages, or seed warehouse.

• The main dude does have four jars of seeds he had grabbed earlier. “At least we’ll have a fighting chance,” he says. That’s brilliant writing right there.

We watched Despicable Me 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then we watched Turbo and enjoyed it even more. Both of us laughed out loud many times. Much of the humor worked well in Spanish: “I’m the Shadow!”

We have also been watching Dr Who, using subtitles I downloaded from the internet. Unfortunately, the subtitles are really bad, apparently created by teenagers in Argentina and Spain. Sometimes they’re literal translations that make no sense, and other times the translators heard wrong or had no idea what was being said.

The episode coming up is The Doctor’s Daughter, which is bad writing on another level. Why was this character created? Once created, why does she never show up again? We shall never know.

I have been reading aloud a Spanish translation of The Wind in the Willows, and Alicia has been entranced. It’s not a bad translation overall, but there are annoying details. The translator nearly always refers to paws as pezuñas, which are actually hoofs, and certain idioms are translated literally rather than using an equivalent Spanish expression: un minuto o dos “a minute or two” rather than un par de minutos “a pair of minutes”.

Language is weird stuff. Did you know that Secretaría General can mean “Office of Legal Counsel”? None of the translation websites will tell you that. I was translating an org chart today from a Latin American government agency, and when I looked at the statutes that describe each office, the Secretaría General was in charge of all legal matters for that agency, including a lot of legal administrative stuff which would fall under the term “Secretariat” (now that I’ve looked up what Secretariat means). I used Office of Legal Counsel, but maybe Secretariat would have been better, although American agencies don’t have Secretariats. Oh, well…

Have yourself a good weekend. And if you watch a foreign film and it doesn’t make sense, remember: translators make mistakes. So do scriptwriters.


17 thoughts on “Bad writing, bad translations

  1. Doctor Who is amazing. Even the cheesiest episodes make me smile.

    And foreign films are my favorite kind of films. When you get a chance, you should hop on Netflix and watch “Farewell, My Concubine” or “Hwang Jin Yi.”

    • We really enjoy Dr Who, even with the bad subtitles. I enjoy some foreign films, but a lot of them are depressing. The optimism of most American and British films is a bit unusual, at least in the Latin world.

  2. I will avoid The Colony.
    I love foreign films! I watch a few every month. So, I will keep that in mind about the translators. The last one I watched was a Danish film…a very serious film called The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen.
    I hope you and Alicia have a wonderful weekend! 🙂
    The “kids” movies like Despicable Me 2 are such fun!
    HUGS!!! 🙂

  3. An entertaining post, better than the movie. You are quite talented at both praise and derision, raves and rants. Never stop.
    I did hear that one actor, hired for the Colony flick and who was paid at first only 50 cents per severed head persevered, head-to-head in negotiation with Production and in the end settled for a buck per discreet body part. ( two bucks for indiscrete ones)
    Yeah, all that to play w/ a dumb english word.)
    A couple minutes in German is also ‘ein Paar Minuten’. Somehow saying ‘one or two minutes begs the party to ask, ‘Which; make up your mind!’
    Here, I routinely read the Heebie subtitles instead of trying to understand the English dialogue. Something has happened and I just ‘don’t get english anymore’ in fast speech.
    But I do read a lot of ‘Duh, that *can’t* be right’ stuff. You get what you pay for I guess. The translators are still on strike; next step is burning tires outside the studios, as usual here.

    • When I was a kid, I often relied on the subtitles because the audio in Medellín’s theaters was not very good. Most movies arrived with subtitles rather than dubbing. I’m amazed at what a good job the best translators do. Often they have to create a completely different joke but still make it fit with the story. Alicia and I have read half a dozen works by Terry Pratchett, and I catch a fair number of errors, but there is also a lot of brilliant translation being done. I can’t imagine translating for someone who plays with words and idioms as much as Pratchett.

  4. I love dr who. Huge fan!
    Especially seasons 3-6

    mark has me reading another cordwainer smith book ( sci fi fiction ) called norstrilia. Really like so far.

    A cute film I saw recently was safety not guaranteed. About a guy who puts an ad in paper for time traveler companion. Intern investigates/ tries to become his traveling companion You have to guess whether he is crazy or a
    genius, and wonder where the movie is headed.

    I also like foreign films. One of my favorites is joyeux noel– about temporary cease fire between germans/ french etc on christmas eve.

    Oh yeah! Loved
    despicable me! Yay!

    Wish I knew Spanish as well as you both do. Very cool

    • Alicia has enjoyed all the Dr Who, but we did find Martha a bit tiresome with her unrequited affection. Donna is hilarious. Matt Smith is just such a total dweeb, he’s a big change from the other Doctors. I look forward to seeing the new guy. I haven’t watched a new episode in a couple of years.

  5. It sounds as though The Colony would make great fodder for Mystery Science Theater. Too bad it’s not on anymore. Maybe you don’t remember it, but the short version is: man and cobbled up robots marooned in space, forced to watch terrible movies. They make smart remarks throughout. Really funny!

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