Toda Natsuko Talks About Her Life

If you watch English-language movies in Japan, you have probably seen the name Natsuko Toda in the subtitling credits. She is at the pinnacle of her profession. You may have wondered about the foundations of this pinnacle if, reading some of her subtitles, like me, you occasionally suffer a mental snort of disapproval at her Japanese renderings of English. Ms. Toda’s presentation made me realize that subtitling is a craft that is subject to all the practical considerations of any work-for-hire. If have ever done freelance work, you surely know the pressure of getting the job done fast enough to meet deadlines and make a living.

I was surely interested when, back in the spring, someone offered me a ticket for a talk to be given in Osaka by Japan’s top subtitler. Work deadlines prevented me from going, but my wife went along with a tape recorder. This report, which might be of interest to anyone involved in writing, is not a translation of a transcription. It has been put together from the tape recording and filled out with additional comments from my wife. I hope that it is a faithful interpretation of an entertaining but rambling talk. The event took place at International House Osaka on 21 February 1999. Ms. Toda appeared wearing a smart two-piece in the red that seems so favored by Japanese women of her generation who pioneered courses through, or occupied outposts in, male-dominated professions. Most of the audience were women. Although the text is in the first person, no direct quote should be attributed to Ms. Toda.

Goals: Work Motivated by Movies
Oh! There are so many young people here today. You know, I’m not used to speaking in front of young people. Usually, I’m asked to talk about movies but, today, they told me to talk about my life. As so many of you are young, I suspect that you’re looking for hints on how to proceed in life: I hope that you’ll be able to glean something useful from what I have to say.

Early life
People are creatures of their time and their environment. I grew up at the end of the war. Tokyo was devastated. Food was in short supply. Maybe that’s why English-language movies had such a lasting effect on me. There wasn’t much entertainment at that time, no television. Everyone loved movies, so I was just one of many in the audience. The cinemas were filled to overflowing; no-one noticed that the theatre was a fleapit. On the screen, the world was so different from what we were used to. I just had to find out what those handsome actors were saying.

In junior high school, English was the only thing I was good at. My interest was stimulated by the English in the many movies I was watching. I’d see a movie, hear someone say, “Yes," and get excited because it matched what was written in the textbook. At college, I seldom attended lectures; I haunted the movie theatres. Although I immersed myself in movies and English, it didn’t occur to me that subtitling was an occupation.

You have to remember that English study in those days didn’t engage the mouth or ears. It was solely a matter of reading and writing. There were no homestays or teaching assistants from overseas. We studied for exams that tested our ability to manipulate complex chunks of text according to grammatical rules. Speaking and listening weren’t skills that were taught or credited. That’s how it was possible to graduate from a four-year university course without being able to speak a single sentence in English.

The lack of material goods back then gave us a kind of freedom. I could do what I wanted. These days, it’s hard to fight against the constant onslaught of information. Back then, things were more clear-cut. I knew what I wanted to do: watch movies. When the time came to get a job, I realized that someone wrote the subtitles, and that subtitling was an occupation that would allow me to watch movies for free. It seemed the ideal job for me. Other people wanted to be air stewardesses, as the job was known in those days. They all liked movies, too, but couldn’t believe that I wanted to be a subtitler.

After seeing so many movies I had good English skills: grammar, writing, and listening, everything except speaking. I noticed that subtitles are not direct translations; they have to be short. The trick is to find the essence. The subtitles also can enhance the drama for the audience. Getting it right seemed quite an art. Everybody was a movie fan, but few people were capable of producing subtitles. How could I get into subtitling?

The quest begins
I found out that the world of subtitling was very small, located in Tokyo, and occupied by less than a dozen men. It was an all-male world, and women were not welcome. Today, women do most of the subtitling; in those days all subtitlers wore neckties. I didn’t see any way to force an entry into that world.

Discouraged, I became what was known as an office lady. I was lucky enough to find a place in a major corporation. The working environment was very pleasant. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I couldn’t stand the lack of freedom during office hours. It was also hard for me to be as pleasant, the whole time, as all the other employees.
Everyone is different. For some, being part of a major corporation and working there every day is an ideal life. It just didn’t suit me. Life is short: I wanted to live each day to the full, even if it meant losing the safety net of guaranteed employment and a pension.

At that time Shimizu Shunji was the top subtitler. I wrote him a letter. He agreed to meet me, whereupon he advised me that there was no room for me in the business. Subtitling could only support about a dozen people, and it was unrealistic for me to try to be one of them. I could see the sense in what he said, but I didn’t give up hope.

Education by Translation
I started to support myself by freelance translation: articles from magazines, commercial translation, things like that. I cannot claim to be bilingual, but I was translating English and Japanese in either direction. Being unattached has its risks: I wouldn’t lightly recommend this lifestyle to anyone else. My income was uncertain, and I wasn’t well off. The closest I got to the movies was translating animation scripts. Astroboy came my way; I had to translate it into English. Working colloquial Japanese into colloquial English was tough. To find out how to make my writing more acceptable, I would compare my stiff versions with dialogue in movies.

Looking back, I can see that the all-round experience of those days was good for me. Guided by a vision, everything I did was part of a learning process, and I enjoyed what I was learning. I particularly remember translating a book on biorhythms and, of course, Astroboy. The work gave me a store of relevant skill and knowledge. That first decade of freelance work, however, was filled with ups and downs. I didn’t pester Mr. Shimizu, but once a year I sent him a New Year's card mentioning that I still wanted to subtitle movies. In the end, he recommended me to a movie company.

A step closer
Movie company: sounds glamorous, doesn’t it. But that’s because you only recall the successful movies. Hits like The Titanic only roll around once every twenty years. Most movies lose money: for the workers, a movie company is not an upbeat place. The major companies, like 20th Century Fox or Warner Brothers, are based in America, and their offices in Japan are minor branches. Any profits are sent back to the center of the movie empire: the relationship is colonial. There were some exceptions, however, such as local distribution companies like Japan Herald.

Anyway, after a long journey, I’d arrived at the threshold of the movie world, but it would take another ten years before I could find a way to make a living from subtitles.

Finding your own way
When you start out on such a quest, there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll take. No-one offered to show me the way; there were no signposts to the women's entrance. When I was in my twenties, my approach to life was fatalistic. I felt confident that a break would come, maybe the next day. I had no idea that it would take twenty years to reach my goal. Life had its ups and downs, but I was content because, after weighing up the pros and cons, I had come to my own decision. I’d chosen my own path in life. I wanted to be a subtitler. I didn’t choose marriage, but if I had, even after sorting through the opinions of relatives and friends, the important thing would have been to be following a path I myself had chosen. One thing I learned from bucking convention is the importance of knowing what you want. I can see that to be happy, whatever road you take, it has to be a path of your own choosing.

In making my way through life, a number of rationalizations kept me going. I had made a decision for myself. If I failed, I would, at least, learn something from failure. I was also aware that I was betting on myself, and bets involve risk. Rather than being prey to dreamy romanticism, I was driven by pragmatic determination. I knew that I had as much chance of failing as of succeeding. I told myself, “This is modern Japan. No-one’s starving. Whatever job you do, you can make enough to get by." This gave me the freedom to try my hand at translating.

Why aren't there more subtitlers?
It became clear to me that subtitling could support only a very limited number of people. Think about it. Somewhere between 300 and 400 foreign-language movies come to Japan each year. This number hasn’t changed much since I first tried to break into the profession. To make a decent living, a subtitler has to do about forty movies a year. I once did fifty but, for me, that rate of one a week is beyond the sustainable human limit. Ten people working full time would subtitle all the year’s movies. There just aren’t enough movies to support more people.

Not only are few people needed; entry is difficult because beginners cannot be trusted with a movie that may have cost the distributor several hundred millions of yen. In the distribution company, I was condemned to translating movie programmes, other PR, even, typing.

One day, however, I was asked to do some interpreting. I was in my mid-30s, but I’d never spoken with a foreign person. To promote movies, more and more people were coming to Japan. This time, no-one else was available. It was sink or swim. Luckily, buoyed by my familiarity with so many movies, I soon moved from treading water to swimming. I still blush when I recall my initial efforts. Despite my lack of fluency, I knew that the important thing was to communicate. As long as you know what you want to say, or grasp the essentials of what someone wants to say, you can get it across. In the movie business, people talk about movies, and movies were my thing, too.

If anyone is planning on making a living from interpreting or translating, you really need to position yourself in a field in which you can accumulate expertise, otherwise your career won’t carry you very far. I was lucky to be well-grounded in movies.

My First Taste of Subtitling
Finally, when I was closer to forty than thirty, a company offered me a movie to subtitle. The next year, I got two more. I learned that movie subtitling is a lot like craft work. You have to bear in mind that the person watching the movie and reading the subtitles can only take in three or four written characters per second, and only up to ten at a time can be present on the screen.

Try translating, “I love him more than you do.” Literally, you get, “Anata yori watashi wa kare o aishiteiru.” What’s that? Twenty characters? You can see that the ability to manipulate Japanese becomes paramount.

Apocalypse Now
One day, I had the good fortune to meet Francis Ford Coppola while he was filming Apocalypse Now. So, this was what they mean by a Renaissance man! He had a great depth of knowledge because he followed up on everything that aroused his interest. This kept him generally very well informed. He liked Japan and came over quite often. When he did, I served as his guide and interpreter.

It seemed that Apocalypse Now was jinxed. The star, Martin Sheen, had a heart attack, and the sets for the Vietnam war in the Philippines were wiped out by a typhoon. Still, the director saw his project through to the end.Then, when the movie was complete, Japan Herald bought the rights and Coppola recommended that I do the subtitling. I did the work with Mr. Shimizu. I was credited in a major movie! A real breakthrough: finally, I was recognized. A stream of movies came my way. I hit forty per year in 1979 and 1980.

It amuses me to think I have something in common with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: like them, I owe my first real breakthrough to a push from Coppola. After twenty years of persistence, I was in the right place at the right time with the right skills. If you stick at something long enough, if opportunities come along, you will have the wherewithal to make the most of your luck. 

Subtitling is a solitary craft activity. That’s why subtitlers don’t hire assistants. To maintain the drama and style, one person has to do the job from beginning to end. To make a living you have to do forty movies a year. An assistant would just get in the way. Usually it takes a week to do a movie. Because companies pay per can of film, the number of words has no relation to payment. Reckoned by hourly rate, Tarzan movies pay well. Movies that are splendidly wordy, however, such as Shakespeare in Love, mean a lot more work for the same pay. Most of the translation usually gets done over the weekend. After that, the following week is spent in the projection room. I might also need to ask experts about legal usage or the technical aspects of things such as firearms. This leaves me with little time to keep up with current news or trends.

Instead, I live in the movies that I am working on. I subtitled both the realistic Saving Private Ryan and the more philosophical Thin Red Line. For those two weeks, playing out the roles of the actors, war was my life. When I subtitled Shakespeare in Love, what a change it was to visit the sixteenth century. Spending all my time in the world of the movies keeps me blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the real world.

Actors I have known
Similarly, actors and directors usually become totally involved in the movies they’re making. Take Harrison Ford. His woodworking skills are well known, but it’s not true to say he was a carpenter before he was an actor. He was determined to be an actor, but on his own terms. He wouldn’t compromise himself with unworthy roles. Rather than perform for money, he preferred to shape wood.

When he came to Japan to promote Star Wars, he’d just split up with his wife and was looking after his kids at the hotel. It reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer. He always came back to the hotel at six in the evening to feed the children and put them to bed. My impression was of a sincere man who had stuck to his guns without sacrificing his pride. In those days, he was unknown. Today he’s a megastar, but when I meet him, he’s still the same Harrison Ford I knew back then.

The career of Tom Cruise followed a different course: he was only twenty-two when Top Gun was made. He was young when fame and fortune came his way. Top Gun made his face known everywhere. A very intense person, he concentrates on whatever he’s doing. If he promises to be somewhere at a certain time, he gets there early. He also carefully selects the roles he accepts.

I saw evidence of his serious character when he made an answerphone message for a TV charity auction in Japan. He was determined to get it right. He did it again and again until, on the tenth take, he felt that his recording was acceptable.

Follow Your Passion
Tom Cruise’s passion for acting is plain to see. He’s been lucky enough to find what truly fascinates him and has followed that path in life. If you have a similar passion for something, you should never make light of it. Even if you cannot see how to make it work for you, nurture it and one day it may give you an edge, or even a means to make a living. From the little I know, it seems to me that, in the twenty-first century, creativity will become more important. They say that people in Japan have been very good at applying ideas, but it has become increasingly important to create things from scratch. Success follows when creativity is driven by passion.

(David Eunice)

Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 86 (September 1999), pp. 10–16. Edited by the author for this republication June 23, 2020.
See also the 2015 Japan Times article about Toda Natsuko by SWET Member Mark Schreiber.