On Foreign Cinema and the One-Inch Barrier    

Last month, Isaac Chung’s American Dream tale Minari (2021) won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Golden Globe. The win was bittersweet; seeing a film centered on the immigrant experience achieve such public recognition felt important, but it also served an unfortunate reminder that America still enjoys seeing itself as linguistically, and by extension racially, homogeneous. Language divides the Golden Globe’s designations between ‘Best Foreign Language Picture’ and ‘Best Picture,’ the latter being necessarily rendered at least fifty-percent in English––a criterion that Minari does not meet. The Academy announced its Oscar nominees just over a week ago. As somewhat of a remedy to the Globe’s controversial classification, Minari was categorized not as ‘foreign,’ but simply as a ‘picture.’ Perhaps this signals progress, perhaps it merely reflects fear of controversy. Regardless, it once again draws attention to Hollywood’s colonial legacy, of which language is paramount. It is, I believe, crucial that we consider translation––both in the literary sense and the visual sense––in rethinking the binary of local and foreign cinema. How do American audiences consume so-called foreign films? Can the American film industry de-center itself? Does a destruction of ‘national’ cinemas intrinsically solve Hollywood’s othering?

I write this article for the Shenandoah Film Collaborative as an ‘International Cinema Specialist.’ To summarize my position’s purpose, my aim is to introduce nonHollywood produced cinema––specifically that of Japan––to an American audience. My chief role is simply to write about Japanese cinema. But on the account of my title––International Cinema Specialist––my job becomes two-fold. In other words, though I may be writing foremostly, I am also translating, rendering Japanese cinema accessible for a non-Japanese audience. Here is where the notion of translation becomes of value. It helps us understand Hollywood’s self-centering language and the relationship between American consumers and non-American products.

Translation, in its conventional understanding, refers to a unidirectional process: a transformation of one language into another, which instantly maps hierarchy between ‘original’ and ‘translated.’ Rey Chow articulates the limitations of such an understanding:

“…we call one language the ‘original’ and the other the ‘translation’ (meaning ‘unoriginal’ and ‘derivative’). This terminology suppresses the fact that the ‘unoriginal’ language may well be the ‘native tongue’––that is, the original language––of the translator, whose translating may involve turning the ‘original’ which is actually not her native/original language into her ‘native’/’original’ language (155).”

It is assumed that authenticity corresponds solely to the original––any movement away from this origin dismantles its value. Even translation’s etymological roots reflect these implications of loss, of decay, and perhaps even of death. Chow cites Barbara Johnson: “It might seem… that the translator ought, despite or perhaps because of [their] oath of fidelity, to be considered not as a duteous spouse as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue (155, emphasis added).

If translation is a relationship between translator and translated, it can be linked with ethnography, which entails a relationship between observer and observed. Ethnography is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the systematic study and description of peoples, societies, and cultures.” Here, ‘systematic’ refers to ethnography in its classical anthropological sense; that is, a (Western) observer inserts themselves into a (non-Western) society and captures them with supposed objectivity. What this definition fails to address is the inequality inherent in the relationship between observer and observed: the very presence of the observer alters the observed. Ultimately, the method of anthropological ethnography reinforces Western imperialism, privileging Western thought and robbing the ‘observed’ of their means of knowing themselves. Chow proposes an alternative to this ethnography that rectifies this via a focus on visuality. The primacy of “to-be-looked-at-ness” explicitly highlights the observed’s active participation in an autoethnography, which in turn destroys any illusion of objectivity:

“With visuality as its focus, this reformulation of ethnography destroys the operational premises––of a world divided in the form of us and them, of viewing subject and viewed object––of classical anthropology. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ are no longer safely distinguishable; ‘viewed object’ is now looking at ‘viewing subject’ looking (153).”

This brings us back to translation: if this reformulated ethnography reveals the ‘unoriginality’ of the observed––in other words, their active participation in showing themselves––then how can the integrity of translation’s ‘originality’ be deconstructed? Chow suggests that, citing the work of Walter Benjamin, translation is not a method to convey meaning, but rather “a process of putting together (157).”

Through this lens, the binary between ‘original’ and ‘translated’ crumbles. The process of putting together, or ‘literalness’ as Chow calls it, reveals the constructedness of both the original and the translation. Translation becomes multidirectional:

“…the notion of translation highlights the fact that it is an activity, a transportation between two ‘media,’ two kinds of already-mediated data, and that the ‘translation’ is often what we must work with because, for one reason or another, the ‘original’ as such is unavailable––lost, cryptic, already heavily mediated, already heavily translated (163).”

Beyond deconstruction, this notion of translation is capable of finding value exterior to the ‘original.’ Translation source cannot be privileged on the condition of originality because it too is already mediated. What does this definition of translation––and ethnography––imply for film?

Ethnography translates culture, producing a way of cultural consumption that is entirely enmeshed in Western empire. As a cultural product, misconstrued notions of originality sucks film into its abyss: non-Western nations must render themselves in the original or face accusations of infidelity. What is assumed here is that, for example, ‘Japan’ exists prior to Japanese film. In other words, ‘Japan’ has an essential meaning that summarizes the totality of its history and people, and that the translation of Japan must by all intents and purposes remain faithful to this meaning. Critics of Japanese film, both of the West and of Japan, have accused director Akira Kurosawa of betraying such a meaning, for “pandering to Western values and politics.” It’s precisely these criticisms that keep intact archaic binaries of observer and observed, only becoming “prohibitive deterrents against cultural translation altogether (151).”

Returning to Minari, I think the aforementioned notions of translation suggest that film awards relegate non-English films to a “foreign” category because their rendering in a language other than English is seen as a loss of meaning. Under this pretense of loss, or degradation, meaning can never be fully understood, and consequently its value cannot be determined. Applying this logic to non-American produced films proves slightly more complicated. By virtue of ‘national’ cinema existing, it would seem fair to relegate non-American films for an American award to one big ‘foreign-language’ category. What this ignores is yet again a re-articulation of American centrality in world cinema, with all its inflections of white, masculine Western-hood. The word ‘international’ remedies some of the blatant othering associated with ‘foreign,’ yet even so it functions more as a closely-related synonym than a revision. I’m equally not convinced that the destruction of ‘national’ cinema solves this issue either––this destruction seems violent, and may be altogether useless.

Aside from rethinking film awards, it seems necessary that we rethink the way we write about film. How does one skirt the essentializing impulses of both ‘foreign cinema’ and ‘national cinema’? In poststructuralist discourse, much of the attention to translation––in the sense of cultural translation––engages with the essentialism produced via Western translations. Rey Chow points out a common thread of thought under this discourse:

“…deconstruct the danger and pitfalls of a term in its conventional usage; rescue that term for its inherent ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘difference’; affirm this ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘difference’ when it is used by certain groups of people (161).”

According to this logic, though the non-Western Other may be freed of essentialism’s jaws, it still values ‘original’ above all. This anti-orientalist thinking is not just idealist, but “invests heavily in the form of attentiveness that is a vigilance to words.” I am sure my own writing has, and still reflects a tendency to rely on this anti-orientalist––though nevertheless inadequate––approach. How do we extend ourselves past this?

Bong Joon-ho, upon receiving the Best Foreign-Language Picture Golden Globe for his film Parasite (2019), said: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He is right––there is a world of cinema to be discovered, subtitled or not. But is this barrier really just one-inch-tall? Is this really just about language?

Sources/Further Readings

Chow, Rey. “Film as Ethnography; or, Translation Between Cultures in the Postcolonial World.” The Rey Chow Reader, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 149-170.