“You’re the Translator. Translate!”


Stargate is a film about an immigrant’s love for America. It has a wonderment, a fascination with the American way that seems almost undimmed by the history of the 20th century. Stargate is what happens when the Prime Directive of Star Trek meets the Manifest Destiny of the real world.

It’s also about a bunch of American soldiers getting bogged down in a desert war about a mysterious, magical resource, fighting a power that is almost unknowable. Stargate was made in 1994, right after the First Gulf War, and it ends with this terrible realisation that they have only fought one battle, and that their enemy has many allies, that will be coming for them next.

That’s not all. Stargate is adored by translators all over the world, because it’s one of only a handful of films in which the translator is the hero.


I have been in those situations. No, not quite brought back from the dead and forced to debate politics in a recently learned dead language with an immortal alien… but close. I have been dumped into negotiations way over my head, in a language or dialect I don’t even speak, and had to muddle through. I have turned up in the middle of fights threatening to escalate into real trouble, and they’ve said to me “You’re the translator. Translate!” I have stared at a blackboard where someone has tried to have a crack at my specialist subject, and said: “Who wrote this crap?”

You can thank Roland Emmerich for that, I imagine. This is a man who grew up speaking German. He knows whereof he speaks. There’s a great scene in Stargate when Daniel Jackson is in a cave with his love interest, Sha’uri; Daniel points at hieroglyphs and reads out the pronunciations, and she tells him what the vowel mutations and consonantal shifts are. If you learn to speak Mandarin first, that’s how you learn to convert it into Cantonese! Although sadly not every language course supplies a Sha’uri to jolly things along.

I think that at its deepest level, the thing that really strikes home in Stargate is that Daniel Jackson isn’t just a translator. He’s a writer in Hollywood. He’s the weedy, wimpy specky guy with the big ideas that nobody wants to hear, dragged off to the middle of nowhere by a bunch of bullies and told to twist his skills in new and unexpected directions. The soldiers hate him. They’re all producer types who just want car chases and boobs, but he’s there with his books in the desert, wide-eyed with amazement at this incredible thing, that is all his dreams coming true, as long as the producers don’t ruin it. And at the end, he gets the girl!

Well, at the end of the movie, anyway. In the TV series… well, there’s some small print…

Jonathan Clements has translated Sun Tzu’s Art of War, among other things.

Art Beat

When Satoshi asked me if I’d go to the hospital with him, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He was so young! My Japanese ability wasn’t even equipped to find out why. I asked him what was wrong and got a series of staccato jigu jago Japanese syllables. It’s easy to get mixed up if the vocabulary isn’t familiar. Shuy? is a tumor. Sh?yu is soy sauce, and I didn’t want to press him for clarification. Meekly, I said I’d be there for him, and tagged along.
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Fatal Attraction

In 1940, in a Japan at war, Wagoro Arai began work on an animated version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Twelve minutes long, his version focussed on the closing act of the opera, as the dutiful wife waits expectantly for her husband to return home, only to find that he has abandoned her in favour of an American woman. It was the perfect propaganda strike against the Allies – a heartless foreigner, discarding a Japanese spouse, who avenges herself with suicidal fervour. Arai planned to use the voice of Tamaki Miura, a Japanese singer who had travelled the world in happier times, singing the role of Butterfly in Boston and New York, Rome and Florence.
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Perceived Value

This article first appeared in Neo #50, 2008.

Back in April 2003, I attended the Tokyo demonstration of Blu-ray. I rushed home trilling about the benefits of an entire TV series on a single disc! Except this was precisely what the Japanese TV industry didn’t want. At meetings with expensive biscuits all over Tokyo, people fretted about Perceived Value. It’s all very well, they said, to cram the entirety of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis onto a single disc, but how much can we charge for it? Will our target 16-year-old buyer really drop £100 all at once on that single disc, particularly if he’s never seen an episode beforehand?
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Hyena Poo

The sight of my gurning face on Right Stuf’s podcast, backed by multiple images of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis made me laugh. Not because of my freakish appearance, but because I knew where that photograph of me was originally taken: at the cave complex in Zhoukoudian, China, at the site where archaeologists first discovered Peking Man. It’s a long way from anime; it’s a long way from anything.

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Pod People

I am now available in pod form, courtesy of the people from the Right Stuf, who interview me on their latest Anime Today show about anime, manga, and the difficulties of getting Chinese waiters to sing Help Me Rhonda.

Click here to listen

As part of their very professional and diligent set-up, they put together the above picture of me in front of a bunch of Schoolgirl Milky Covers. Next blog entry, I’ll tell you where I really was when that photo was taken. Really, you’d never guess.

Meanwhile, it’s time to announce the winners of the Big Giant Heads’ competition to win a free copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Readers of this blog were asked to come with their own name for a stupid anime show, causing much mirth at Titan Books with their ideas for hundreds of truly awful, teeth-itchingly unpleasant titles.
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