A number of years ago, Hollywood Gothique sat down with Neil Gaiman to discuss his American adaptation for Princess Mononoke. His rendition of a Studio Ghibli script is unique in that it retains a poetic, lyrical style, one that respects the original dialog while also explaining certain elements of Asian culture to Western audiences. This is always a debating point for the dubs-versus-subs crowd, and that's perfectly fine. But what cannot be denied is the honest, heartfelt desire to bring Hayao Miyazaki's vision to the outside world.
In the interview, Gaiman discusses the challenges in balancing translation with adaptation, and of conveying ideas that fall between the gaps of the two languages:
So there was a certain amount of creativity, not just mechanical translation.
There was an enormous amount of creativity in the job. If it had just been a matter of taking the script and tidying up the language to make it sound more like dialogue, that would have been easy. The fun for me was that all of these people are different; they have different characters and different voices.
There was some issue with Miramax about retaining the Japanese flavor in the dialog, suggestions that you replace "Samurai" with "Warrior."
That got a bit silly for awhile. “Samurai” they left; we got to keep “samurai.” We lost “sake”; “sake” became “wine.” We lost “Japan,” interestingly enough, and we even lost China—at one point [in the original version] they talk about these guns that come from China.
Did you have to be real concerned with synchronization, writing dialog that matches how long the characters' mouths are moving?
It’s not even a matter of how long they’re moving their mouths. It’s a matter of matching exactly. People have been asking if we reanimated it. There are two schools of thought coming out from the film. School of Thought #1 is that we reanimated the mouth movements. School #2 is that they must have made two different versions at the same time.
In Japan, it's standard to post-dub animation, so clearly it can be done.
What is interesting is that we actually match the mouth movements better than the Japanese one did, only because what would break suspension of disbelief for an American audience is much more than for a Japanese audience, so we had to be closer.
The delight with PRINCESS MONONOKE is we set a new standard for dubs. You get different responses from fans, because you get different types of fans watching it. One are the people who have seen the original Japanese film many times; sometimes they love it, and sometimes they have stuff they miss from the Japanese version, in terms of performances. In the Japanese one, for example, the part of Moro, the giant wolf, is played by a transvestite, a female impersonator; it actually sounds, frankly, like a fairly deep-voiced male actor, although Moro the wolf is a female. So they sort of remember a very deep, growling kind of voice. Now, we have Gillian Anderson, and we don’t try to recreate that voice. There was no attempt to recreate that. There was no attempt to tell Gillian Anderson, “Do it in a deep voice like a bloke” or anything. The idea was, we have Gillian Anderson, and she’s wonderful and astonishing, and she’s really, really good. We did that all the way through. Billy Bob [Thornton]does not sound like the Jigo from the Japanese version. But on the other hand, Billy Bob as this wonderful, sort of used car salesman—this little wild card forever fiddling stuff behind the scenes—is terrific.
You had to fill American audiences in on background information that would be obvious to Japanese viewers. For instance, when Ashitaka cuts his hair, it symbolizes that he is now "dead" to the people of his village.
In the Japanese one, they are talking about other things, and he goes and cuts his hair, puts it on the alter, goes out, and never comes back to his village. As far as most Americans are concerned at this point, he’s just given himself a haircut, possibly because it’s going to be a slightly long trip. You want people to get the same amount of information that they would have got.
Was there a trade-off? Did you have to leave out other dialog to make room for these new bits of information?
Rarely. Mostly no. There was very little that got left out. You change things for effect. At one point they’re talking about women and how they have to stay and guard the town. The captain of the guard says, “Don’t worry about our ladyship. I will protect her.” One of the women in Japanese turns to him and says, “Useless!”—and everybody laughs. Which is fair enough, but it doesn’t take you terribly far in doing the translation. You go, “Why is she saying ‘useless’? Why is this so funny?” So I have her go, “Even if you were a woman, you’d still be an idiot!”—and everybody laughs. Now, we lost the word “useless,” but we had the laugh and the context.