Lessons from Natsuko Toda

Last week my university was privileged to host Toda Natsuko as a guest speaker. For any Japanese person who has ever watched a Hollywood movie with Japanese subtitles, it is very likely that they were reading her words. Possibly the most prolific subtitler in the world, she has provided Japanese subtitles for over 1500 movies including ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and Mission Impossible.

This is no mean feat. Considering that audiences spend 90% of their time looking at the movie and 10% glancing down at the subtitles, and the fact that audiences can digest spoken language at a much faster rate than written language, her job is not direct translation. She has to take a lot of liberties about how to adapt one spoken language, to another written language, each with its own culture. Oh, and she has one week to do it. And this work must be done solo, so that there is consistency in the communication style. Rather than translating it might be considered an art, because there are so many ways things can be expressed, and so it is no surprise then that there have been some criticisms of her work. That aside, for the most part she is considered highly accomplished, and an extremely powerful face in the movie industry in Japan. She also works as an interpreter when Hollywood stars visit Japan.

In her 90 minute presentation she engaged the audience with talk about the movie industry and how it has changed over the years. She lamented the lack of substance in movies now days which ‘wow’ for ninety minutes but leave nothing behind in the viewers’ minds or hearts. She presented three lessons to the audience, particularly aimed at the university and high school students in the audience. I will do my best to relay these lessons to you, but please note that I am paraphrasing from her Japanese.

Lesson #1 Learning is about passion
Like many Japanese students, Toda learnt English at school. She didn’t like it. What she was interested in was films. When the Hollywood films would be flown in, she would go to see them, and spent a lot of her university days at the cinema. She could read the subtitles, but she became curious about what they were saying, what they were actually saying. Her love was never about English, but about film. She told the audience that if it were not for films, she never would have continued studying English.

The theme of passion ran through her talk. Ask a kindergarten student what they like to do, and they’ll give you an answer. Have you ever heard of a kindergarten student who didn’t know what they liked and what they didn’t like? And then we grow up and we forget. And many young people today don’t know what it is they like. She encouraged the young high school and university students in the audience if they didn’t know what they liked, to ask their parents what they liked when they were younger.

She told a story about Jim Carey (she name drops a lot but not in an arrogant way). They were talking about this concept. Apparently, Jim Carey liked to lock himself in the bathroom when he was a child and make faces in the mirror. His parents worried, as is understandable. Eventually they told him to do whatever he wanted. Well, the rest is history.

Lesson #2 No-one is going to open doors for you
All of a sudden, Toda relays, she was in her final year of university and had to start looking for a job. She didn’t want to work in a 9-5 job (though she tried and quit after a short period). What she loved was movies, and because of her English studies, she felt this was a skill she could use. Despite spending hours watching films, it was only then that she started thinking about the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, thinking that someone must be writing them, and perhaps that was a job she could do.

While finding information about how to get a job as a movie subtitler might take a few touches of the keyboard today, Toda finished university in the late 1950s, and so she went directly and in person to the head offices of movie companies in Tokyo. In her early twenties, a Japanese woman in a highly patriarchal Japan, with no experience, she asked for a job. There were 10 people doing that job in the whole of Japan, and they were all men. Of course, she laughs, there was no way they were going to give me a job.

She became a ‘furiitaa’, a relatively new Japanese word which she applied to herself in retrospect, someone who takes on low paid and casual jobs, for a number of reasons but in Toda’s case, because she didn’t want to do a job she didn’t like. She supported herself while continued studying English and watching movies. She gained a job as a secretary at a movie production company, which included some work translating letters from and into English. There was panic in the office one day because a Hollywood star was coming and there was no interpreter, they weren’t so common in Japan at that time. You know English, you do it. But Toda resisted, she could understand movies, she could read and write, but she had never actually spoken English, she had never been overseas.

Despite her worry, everything went well because, although her spoken English wasn’t perfect, she had knowledge about films that gave her ample fodder to talk about, and she was able to build relationships. This led her to be asked to interpret again.  Along the way she met Francis Ford Coppola, who she got along well with, and who requested for her specifically to translate ‘Apocalypse Now’. She was flown to the Philippines and it was her first time abroad. She was 40 years old. It had taken 20 years to get her break.

Lesson #3 Just knowing a language is not enough
Toda emphasised the fact that learning language is not enough. She said that in the 70 years since Japan surrendered in WWII, Japan has improved in almost all areas. But, in learning English, Japanese are still terrible. Don’t you think? She coaxed the audience, who perhaps didn’t want to hear it. She talked briefly about the current push to get English into primary schools and kindergartens. She doubted it would have any impact. Grammar and vocabulary are important, don’t get me wrong, but practicing communication is important too. Being able to communicate what you want to say. And that’s about knowing things, knowing your own culture, knowing about the world, having things to say. Knowledge, she cited as the most important skill as a translator.

At the end of the talk she was asked questions from the audience. A high school student asked what advice she would give to young people about what they should do now, in their youth, to help them in the future. Toda asked for clarification, do you mean for English or in general. Either is okay. That’s easy, she’s says without a beat. Read. Read books. Everyone is looking down at their phones. I don’t see anyone reading books on the train anymore. I watched a lot of movies when I was young, but I read too. You should read about the world, see how different people put words together. Learn new things. Read.


*What do you think of Toda Natsuko’s story?
*What do you think of her lessons for young people?
*Who are your language learning role models?

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Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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