For Better Subtitles, Imagine Tom Cruise As A Vietnamese | Vietcetera
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Feb 07, 2024

For Better Subtitles, Imagine Tom Cruise As A Vietnamese

Film translator Nguyen Le shares his insights into working with films and presents his perspective on ‘Trống Cơm’ in English.
For Better Subtitles, Imagine Tom Cruise As A Vietnamese

Source: Bobby Vũ for Vietcetera

At the age of 14, Nguyen Le embarked on his film translation journey. His very first audience was none other than his parents and relatives, as he provided live translations for movies they watched on DVD right from the comfort of their living room sofa.

After nearly a decade of working as a reporter and film critic in the US, Nguyen returned to Vietnam as the go-to “Subtitle Guy” for many local productions. In the past year, he has crafted English subtitles for seven Vietnamese titles, including the Hellbound Village series, The Soul Reaper, The Last Wife, etc., and an upcoming movie set to hit theatres this Tet holiday.

In our engaging one-hour conversation, Nguyen Le shares with Vietcetera the behind-the-scenes stories of his role and his take on the future of film translation in the context of the rising influence of AI technology.

What does film translation involve?

For me, film translation goes far beyond mere literal interpretation; it’s all about capturing the essence of characters’ dialogues.

Let’s look at Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible franchise. Translating exactly what he said is not the way to go. Rather, I would imagine how Tom Cruise expressed those same thoughts and emotions in Vietnamese - What words would he use? How would the sentence structure reflect the original English yet resonate authentically in Vietnamese?

Do you use that same approach when translating Vietnamese movies?

I always try not to do that. The point here is to introduce the beauty of the Vietnamese language and cultural elements to the global audience. Simply substituting Vietnamese expressions with Western equivalents might make the film comprehensible, but it risks losing the depth and cultural context that defines the Vietnamese experience.

For instance, the Vietnamese tradition of expressing life lessons in rhythm and rhyme is something I strive to capture in my translations.

Take this line in the movie The Soul Reaper for example:

“Chuyện này, sống để dạ, chết mang đi.”

I have it as...

“All you’ve heard, mute it as you live, bring it as you die.”

Source: Bobby Vũ for Vietcetera

What is the hardest part of this job?

Definitely translating Vietnamese slang and wordplay.

Vietnamese slang and wordplay are fascinating and intricate. My task is to convey this uniqueness to an international audience in a way that’s both comprehensible and preserves the original wit.

For instance, in Hellbound Village and The Soul Reaper, there are numerous instances of rhyming and rhythmic verses. Take this “vè” (a traditional form of oral poetry) by Madam Lam:

“Nghe vẻ nghe ve,

nghe vè cái Tết.

Cả làng chết hết,

chúng tao cả mừng.”

My goal in translating this was to maintain the original word count while keeping the rhyme and rhythm intact. I also had to be careful not to use overly elaborate language that could confuse non-Vietnamese speakers. After 4 hours of struggling. I came up with the following:

“Hear ye hear ye,

a poem of Tet.

When all are dead,

we shall then feast.”

Another example is from the end of episode 3 of Hellbound Village, featuring the folk tune “Trống Cơm.” I worked to recreate its rhythmic and rhyming qualities in English, making it singable:

“Tình bằng có cái trống cơm

Khen ai khéo vỗ

Ố mấy bông mà nên bông

Ố mấy bông mà nên bông.”


“My love is a big drum

Fun when it beats

O joy on top of joy

O joy on top of joy.”

Let’s see if you can cover it. (Laughs)

Source: Bobby Vũ for Vietcetera

Think of movie-making as constructing a house. Now, what would the subtitling resemble in this process?

I think subtitling is like laying out a carpet.

For many viewers, subtitles help bridge the language barrier, enabling viewers from different cultural backgrounds to access and connect with the film. Therefore, I think of subtitling as laying out the welcoming carpet to invite others into your home. Without the carpet, there’s only a bare concrete floor or whatever else that may discourage them from coming and exploring further.

So, have international audiences walked into our ‘home’ yet?

Well, not quite yet. the representation of Vietnamese culture in Hollywood movies remains somewhat limited and often inaccurately portrayed due to language barriers.

Take, for instance, the movie The Quiet American (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce. Minor spoiler incoming. There’s this scene where Michael Caine’s character, Thomas, discovers his friend can speak Vietnamese, leading him to suspect that his friend has been a spy.

Michael Caine’s performance in that scene was so excellent that he got nominated for an Oscar. However, every time the scene cuts to his friend speaking Vietnamese, I find it impossible to understand that type of “Vietnamese.”

Why? Hollywood filmmakers don’t speak Vietnamese, so they wing it. They probably reckon nobody will call them out either, which has long been a bummer for me.

Hollywood still goes for jungles and wars when they think about Vietnam. While these are indeed aspects of our history, they represent only a part of our rich culture and experiences. When Vietnamese cinema gains international recognition, we show that Vietnam has diverse stories to offer and is capable of sharing them with the world.

Is film translation a good career choice in Vietnam today?

Unfortunately, not quite. Many still view film translation as a mere side gig. While Vietnamese cinema has leveled up on the technical front, subtitles are just there to tick a box most of the time.

As a Vietnamese movie goes international, the only way folks from other countries can get it is through the subtitles. But what if those subtitles are off? It makes you wonder what they might think about our post-production work or how seriously we take our cinema scene.

Film translation isn’t just about entertainment; it plays a crucial role in extending the reach of our culture. Some small lines of proper subtitles can bridge gaps, opening a window into our world. This is why cinematic translation should get the recognition and paycheck it deserves.

Do you ever worry about ChatGPT swooping in and stealing your job?

I believe that AI is already present in this industry. Even before ChatGPT, many turned to Google Translate for subtitles. But by which method the translation was done, the audiences tend to be able to tell.

For example, in the movie Bẫy Ngọt Ngào (The Naked Truth), there’s a moment when a character gets a tattoo and says, “Anh ơi, bữa khác làm tiếp được không? Đau quá… Đến chữ nào rồi?”, and the English subtitles are as follows:

“Hey, can we continue to make it another day? That’s hurt… To which word?”

A better version without grammatical errors and is long enough to read without missing what’s on-screen might look like this:

“Hey, can we do this later? It hurts… And which word are we on?”

Are you implying that AI won’t replace humans in this industry?

I sure hope it stays that way. All the work I have done so far has been “AI-free,” and people have appreciated it.

Staying “AI-free” is my mantra in this job. I wish more people in the industry would stick to this, too. A lot of the subtitle pros before me have held on to this approach. Let’s keep it going because there’s something special about the human touch in translation. Translating is an art form in itself!

Translated by Lưu Huỳnh Xuân Mai