On dubbing

Yoko Tawada, “The Art of Being Non-Synchronous”:

In Japan, poetry readings are rare. I found it just as surprising that on German television the samurais in a Kurosawa movie spoke German fluently, as did the figures in anime films. Even Lieutenant Columbo, who on Japanese television had spoken only Japanese, now spoke German as if he’d done so all his life.

Recently I watched Mulan dubbed over in German. Serendipity is real, I suppose, because the movie returned to me at a time when I was being erased as a woman, as a woman who has never lived seamlessly in her sex, as a person of color, as a writer, as a fighter, as a daughter who still wants to save her father’s life, possibly by dying. I watched the original Mulan, when I was just a little too old to love it as wildly and permanently as I did. The “original” Mulan—which isn’t original at all, really. The original itself being a version, too. Mulan in English; Mulan a brown girl with an American voice in Disney’s toy China, trying not to die even though the whole point of what she does is that you die. Does that make it palatable for audiences, or does that make it even weirder? It sounds like my life.

The word ‘to dub’ is fukikae in Japanese. Fuki means “to blow” and kae ‘to exchange.’ A different voice is blown into a body and replaces the old one. Dubbing is a shamanic activity. If for example a person wishes to speak with his dead mother, he goes to a shaman who summons the souls of the dead. The soul of the dead woman enters into the shaman’s body and speaks through his mouth. Like a film actor, he lets himself be dubbed.

I’m trying to speak English again. I can speak English, I know it, but I don’t know it, I’ve never known it. I’ve never lived with anyone for whom English is a first or only language. When the people I love need fluency, they come to me. Pass through me. This weekend my mother had to give a eulogy for a man who worked at the cemetery where my father is buried. She wrote it herself, then asked me to revise it. To dub over her words. To speak the breath of life into her fantasy Anglophone self.

Of course I did it. I always do it. I’m always writing letters for people who think they aren’t good with words. I’m not always good, but I’m always with words. When I was ten, a girl in my fifth-grade class commissioned me to write a threatening letter to another girl in the class, supposedly for flirting with her boyfriend. I had a bit of a crush on the first girl, so I agreed to write the letter. Like Rostand’s Cyrano; only words of hate, not love. Words like: you are the greatest of traitors, you nub of vomit upon the earth, seeing your stupid face I want to die, also what’s up with your lunchbox and cardigans, the girlish heart is the most dangerous bit, the softest place is where I keep all my blood, if you make me any more miserable than this I will have to erase us both from the earth, hello dumb-dumb, don’t you get that I’m in loooove!

Now of course I wouldn’t send a letter like that to my worst enemy, if I was ever romantic enough to have an enemy. But like most ten-year-olds, I was easy with violence. I even sprinkled fake tears on the letter. Well, they were real tears, because they were mine, but they were fake, because they weren’t for who I said they were for. The second girl went straight to the principal with the letter, and I was swiftly suspended from school. I was detained in the principal’s office until my mother could get off work and collect me. In the office, the letter was passed around to everyone, regardless of position or rank. Even the Arrowhead guy who came to change the water took a look at it. Those who had already read the letter kept a wide berth of me. The looks were some mixture of revulsion, arousal and awe. What is it like for an adult to realize how unknowable a child is? To realize a child is sentient? That a child doesn’t just absorb or learn but: makes things in the world. Moves things in the world. The child-sponge drips. That same year, just like Mulan—but this was three years before I saw the movie—I cut a foot of my own hair off to show everyone that I knew what to do with my desires. I held the ponytail of hair up to the people who loved me and said, “Surprise.”

Finally, my mother came in her nurse’s uniform. They gave her the letter, which by then was already badly smudged and wrinkled. My mother, who has always been a little afraid of me and who has transformed that fear into a fierce and somewhat suffocating love, read the letter weeping.

She kept saying, I didn’t know you had that in you. I didn’t know you had that in you.

I wanted to say, But I’m a writer. I have everything in me.

But when you speak a different language, both your voice and your speech rhythms differ as well. I wondered whether I really knew this woman or just a cassette recording inside her. Can the body be compared to a cassette player in which you can keep changing the tape?

Change the tape in my body? I’m the kind of person who takes the cassette out of the player—out of the body—before it’s finished playing, so the magnetic tape guts unspool. Meaning: I don’t know when I’m speaking or spilling. I try not to speak at all, if possible.

Yoko Tawada writes in both Japanese and German, but doesn’t usually translate herself. In her book Where Europe Begins, she has a short story called “Canned Foreign,” where she writes:

“Most of the words that came out of my mouth had nothing to do with how I felt. But at the same time I realized that my native tongue didn’t have words for how I felt either. It’s just that this never occurred to me until I’d begun to live in a foreign language. Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them.”

I thought with manic joy: someone else is sickened by fluency, too! Sickened, but not with disgust, exactly. Sick in the heart. Sick like an orphan. Basically, I’m haunted. It’s a relief when you meet people who are haunted, too. People who can’t live in the house of language without looking over their shoulders all the time. Creaky noises, ancient curses, someone beloved who died badly and too early. Living in words like in a horror film. Most horror films being, in any case, the tragic sequel to an unseen romance.

Or like the channel arte, which broadcasts on one channel in French, on the other channel in German. On the German arte channel, the French shows are dubbed over in German, and vice versa. But the dubbing is somewhat poorly done; they never turn the original language down enough, so that you always hear it poking through the dubbed voice. Even for someone who understands both languages—maybe especially for someone who understands both languages—it can be impossible to know what the hell is going on. You feel like you’re going crazy, trying to figure out in what year this really irritatingly gorgeous cathedral was built by unmentioned slaves, or whatever it is they’re showing. Every word is always being cancelled before it’s even spoken, or being dragged down, like when in a cemetery, a living hand bursts through the soil and grabs the ankle of the dubbed word. When the dubbed-over word won’t just shut up. Won’t die.

Hearing a poet read his work only strengthens my impression that the voice is coming from far away or from a person not literally present. You stare at the poet’s lips to reassure yourself that you really do have before your eyes the authentic source of the poem. But the more closely you watch his lips, the more difficult it is to say where the sound of a poem comes from.

Change the tape? I started watching the movie Fish Story, where a 1975 song by a Japanese punk band might save the world from a massive comet that is about to destroy the earth. The song is called “Fish Story,” and the lyrics are, according to the IMDB description of the film: “based on a sentence from a badly translated novel by a quack translator.”

The actor Kengo Kora, who plays Kizuki in that movie adaptation of Norwegian Wood, which I didn’t care for, sings these words:

The story of my solitude
When my solitude was a fish
It would be so enormous, so militant
Even a whale would get out of there

How the hell can solitude be a fish, is the retort that various people make in the film. Have you ever had a fish? I had a lot. I get how solitude can be a giant whale-terrifying fish. Spoiler alert, the song saves the world. A bad translation saves the world. I haven’t seen the end of the movie yet; I only read that it ends that way. Once again, like an idiot or an epistolary lover, I have to trust the things I read.

In the part of the film that I have watched, there’s a scene in which three young men in a car listen to a cassette tape notorious among collectors of paranormal music. There’s a bit of silence in a certain song, where supposedly you can hear a girl scream, if you have the sixth sense for that kind of thing. The three of them listen to it. You get the feeling that the driver, a nervous and softspoken young man, heard something. But I don’t know. I haven’t finished it yet. As for me, did I hear something? Aren’t I always?

Where does a voice come into being? Perhaps a vibration is first created in the vocal chords, the palate, on a person’s tongue. But this is not yet a voice. Only in the listener’s head is it constructed as the voice of a person. We hear selectively, we correct, add to, and adulterate what we are hearing. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand the person speaking to us. We contribute to this process by bringing in our own knowledge, preconceptions, imagination, and repressed thoughts. Thus every act of listening is already a dialogue, even before we open our mouths to reply.

Change the tape? Change the tape. Letters to the dead, mixtape for the dead. Yesterday I heard myself on a recording. I wonder when my real voice is going to arrive. One of these days, one of these words is definitely going to bring you back. It has to.

What is appealing about art is not achieving good synchronizations.

After a stern dressing-down by the principal, my mother and I left the school to begin my suspension. In the car, she wiped her face, and suddenly I saw that the crying was all an act. She wasn’t really that mad. She just had to seem appalled for my Catholic-school punishers. She asked if I wanted some KFC. I said yes. We drove away. The whole time she had been lying, when she said she didn’t know what I had in me.

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