What I Learned Translating "Decision to Leave"

What was involved in, and the insights gained from, creating the English subtitles for Park Chan-wook's romantic mystery.
Darcy Paquet

Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries starting December 9, 2022 in the series Luminaries.

It's a strange sort of intimacy that develops between a film and its translator. Entering into such close proximity to a work during the frenzied weeks in which the subtitles are made gives the translator a somewhat slanted perspective. In some ways, your ability to step back and objectively assess a film can be affected. Being so close to the work creates certain blind spots. On the other hand, translators must be so sensitive to the nuances of language, performance, and characterization that one starts to feel especially close to the characters and the ways in which they express themselves. It does seem that translators experience a film with different eyes and ears.

It was just over a year ago, in late November and early December 2021, that I watched Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave for the first time, and sat down to translate it into English. Or to be more precise, that I sat down to watch and translate the film simultaneously.

A minor confession: just about everybody assumes that as the subtitle translator, I watch a film in its entirety first, and then begin the process of translating it. It would seem to be the sensible approach, but actually (like many translators, it turns out), I do the opposite. I start with a film’s first scene, watch it three or four times, work out the spotting (i.e. the timing) of the subtitles, type in a rough first translation, and then watch it again a few more times to see if the translation feels right. Then I move on to the second scene. Admittedly, it's an eccentric way to watch a movie—I can't imagine there are many other viewers who watched Decision to Leave over a full week in such a slow, drawn-out manner. But it provides certain advantages. For one, I like to have my first impression of a scene fresh in my mind when I take my first stab at a translation. The second time you watch a film can be a very different experience. Plus, subtitling a feature film can be an exhausting, arduous task, so my desire to see the film through to its end helps pull me through the translation. I can draw on my involvement as a spectator for energy. Of course, sometimes you need to know later developments in the story to properly translate a line of dialogue. But all that can be fixed during the revision stage, when I rewatch the film in more or less the same way and rewrite practically everything.

Even more so than in a typical Park Chan-wook film, the dialogue in Decision to Leave feels like the intricately fashioned springs and wheels of a wristwatch. It's not just that each sentence is perfectly formed, but that they fit so neatly into the overall structure of the movie. Each character speaks in a voice that is utterly distinctive, with words and phrases from one part of the film repeated and echoed in later scenes. At the center of this is the relationship between the two main characters, the contours of which keep shifting as we move through the film. As the well-mannered detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) loses his heart, followed by his dignity—and the elusive widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) gradually sheds the protective layers of her persona, leaving her more exposed—the ways in which these two characters speak to each other are constantly in flux.

To take all the complexity and nuance of the dialogue crafted by Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung (a brilliant writer in her own right, who has collaborated with Park on five films), and attempt to express it in the limited space available to the subtitle translator, is, to put it mildly, frustrating. All subtitle translation involves a high degree of compromise, since the text flashes so briefly on the screen. Inevitably some nuance or shade of meaning must be jettisoned in order to give the viewer enough time to read. Over the years I've become slightly better at squeezing as much meaning, emotion and style into the fewest number of words possible, but it's still a bit embarrassing to see my imperfect translation up on the screen alongside Park's carefully sculpted dialogue.

Still, the job certainly has its pleasures. Recently I read an interview where Park mentioned how much he enjoyed writing the dialogue spoken by the character Seo-rae. I felt a jolt of recognition; for me too, those lines were my favorite to translate. Seo-rae is a Chinese woman who speaks Korean at an advanced, but not native level. Park could have inserted the occasional grammatical error into her speech, but he chose not to (in contrast to the text messages sent by her second husband in the latter part of the film, which are filled with typos to comic effect). Seo-rae's word choices are unexpected, and she speaks in a slightly archaic manner to express the fact that she learned much of her Korean by watching costume dramas on TV. The end result is dialogue that feels unusual, slightly awkward but highly expressive in its own way. I'm not sure if my translation fully captures this quality of her speech, but I tried my hardest, from the charmingly stilted (“In Korea, if a person you love gets married, does the love cease?”) to the weirdly poetic (“Because those bleeding photos are screaming wildly”).

Decision to Leave is the second film by Park Chan-wook that I have translated, after The Handmaiden in 2016. Both times, after finishing several drafts, I met with the director and some English-speaking employees at his production company to fine-tune the translation line-by-line.

Sometimes, discussions with the director are about what is added in translation, rather than what is lost. In one scene, Seo-rae speaks a line in Chinese to the neighborhood cat. Hae-joon records it on his phone, and runs it through a translation app which renders it as, "If you wish to give me a present, bring me the simjang of that kind detective." Simjang in Korean means “heart,” but in the sense of the bodily organ, rather than a metaphorical sense. Hae-joon is disturbed and a bit alarmed by this request, and later asks Seo-rae about it directly. She answers that it was a mistranslation; the Chinese word she spoke should be properly rendered as maeum (the metaphorical sense of the word “heart”).

How does one capture all this in the English subtitles? As much as I liked the sound of the phrase, "Bring me the heart of that kind detective," it sounded too metaphorical, rather than the menacing undercurrent that the scene required. After a lengthy discussion, we decided that having the translation app confuse the words “head” and “heart” might be the least bad option. Thus the subtitle, "Bring me the head of that kind detective." "Everyone's going to think you’re referencing Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia," I said to Park. A long pause followed, before he answered, "Very well." (Park is, after all, a devoted Sam Peckinpah fan.)

One might think that times like these are when directors, who are usually quite cagey about interpreting their own work, might open up to the translator about their intentions in each scene. Alas, my experience has been that nearly all directors impart information to the translator on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Decision to Leave

Nonetheless, one can learn much about a director's artistic approach during such meetings. It's interesting to compare Park's handling of dialogue with that of another Korean auteur, Hong Sang-soo. I've translated the last dozen features by the prolific Hong, and for each one I've spent at least 2-3 days going over the translation with the director. During these meetings, it's not uncommon to hear Hong say, "This character said X, but what he was actually trying to say was Y." The characters in Hong Sang-soo's films try to connect with each other through language; they experience strong emotions, and attempt to communicate their feelings to each other. But ultimately, language is a tool that they wield imperfectly. At best, they are only partially successful in communicating their inner experience.

By contrast, the characters in a Park Chan-wook film speak with absolute precision. Only in Decision to Leave could you hear a police detective utter the line, "If grief envelops some like a crashing wave, there are some to whom it spreads slowly, like ink in water." Other characters may be less eloquent, but even the roughest, crudest speakers in Park's film express exactly what's on their mind, without a word wasted. It is not Park's intention to create realistic speech patterns. (Nor is that Hong's intention, but that's another topic...) Instead, speech in Decision to Leave is fine-tuned to create a precise emotional effect, and to fit within the larger structure of the work.

For Park Chan-wook, each line of dialogue serves a certain function. There are directors whose first priority is to make the subtitles sound as smooth and natural as possible. Park, in contrast, doesn’t mind if a translation feels slightly awkward or unnatural, provided that the underlying function of the line is preserved.

Indeed, there are ways in which Park's dialogue sounds unnatural (if precise and highly expressive) even in Korean. In this he seems to have been inspired by the late Korean director Kim Ki-young, whose 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid has often been cited as an influence on director Bong Joon-ho and Parasite. Park too has frequently expressed his admiration for Kim Ki-young, including the startlingly direct and often abrupt or absurd tone in which Kim’s characters speak, almost as if their id had wrested control of the microphone. As early as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-wook's characters have replicated the slightly uncanny quality of Kim's dialogue. At this stage in Park’s career, the effect is somewhat more subtle, but the slightly unnatural tint to his dialogue is a large part of its appeal to his Korean-speaking fans.

A few more rounds of emails followed the meetings with Park, but eventually the subtitles for Decision to Leave were finalized. Months passed during which I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about the film, and it was early summer when I finally had the chance to view the subtitled version of Decision to Leave in a theater with an audience. (I hadn't been able to attend Cannes, though I anxiously read all the reviews coming out of the festival.) Watching the film on the big screen, I was startled anew by its visual beauty—having only seen it on my small laptop while working on the translation. And yet at the same time, there was a part of me that wanted to close my eyes, and experience the film only through its sound and dialogue. I couldn't quite let go of those textured, elegantly composed visuals, but I know if I only listened to the movie, Decision to Leave would have been no less rich, layered, and fascinating.

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