Auckland-born Don Brown is forging a career crafting English subtitles for Japanese films. The 39-year-old’s love affair with Japan blossomed in boyhood through idyllic Japanese tourism posters and later through cult-movie classics such as Godzilla.
Brown was a primary-school-aged pupil in Titirangi, Auckland, when a family friend married a Japanese woman.
“It was Kazuko who planted that first seed in my brain. She gave me Japanese tourism posters for places like Kyoto and Nara with beautiful photos of temples shrouded in leafy forest. I was mesmerised by them.”
He has spent the last 14 years living in Japan and is now based in Yamato City (Kanagawa Prefecture) just outside of Tokyo.
Prior to moving to Japan, Brown studied journalism at the Auckland Institute of Technology (AIT), which helped him decide he “wasn’t cut out for journalism”. During this time he began attending film festivals and worked part-time at the Academy Cinema. With an already growing obsession for Japanese TV shows such as Monkey and Star Fleet, he made it his “personal mission to see every Japanese movie that was screened in the Auckland area”.
Brown decided to return to AIT and enter the two-year Diploma of Japanese course. He was chosen to represent the school on a two-week Japanese exchange, during which he explored Tokyo, Nagano and Hida-Takayama, and attended classes with Japanese students.
“It turned out to be the most enjoyable two weeks of my life … and a truly life-changing experience. After coming back to New Zealand I knew exactly where my future lay.”
Through the JET Programme – the Japanese Government’s initiative to promote internationalism at a local level – he spent three years working in a local government role in Kawachinagano City (Osaka Prefecture). With no formal training, he translated letters from the mayor to his sister city counterpart in the United States and interpreted for visiting artists. The low-pressure environment was ideal in which to “fumble and embarrass myself and learn as much as I could from my own mistakes”.
“That invaluable experience formed the basis of my translation and interpreting skills today,” Brown says.
Three years ago Brown left his job as public affairs officer at the New Zealand Embassy to do freelance subtitling full-time. He’s worked on an impressive list of Japanese films including being asked to subtitle legendary Japanese filmmaker Yoji Yamada’s latest film, The Little House. It was, says Brown, “one of the proudest moments of my career.”
How does a self-confessed “weird white boy” who “loved to watch movies” but had no contacts or professional experience in film-making, build a strong reputation in the Japanese film industry?
He started translating material for various film festivals, and through persistence eventually landed his first subtitling job, he says.
“I’ve got to where I am now mainly through staying in the loop and waiting for chances to prove myself.”
Writing subtitles involves painstaking reviews so costly errors don’t find their way into the finished work. The perfect translation may not fit in the time or space allowed, so it is often a compromise to get the best representation of what was said. The best subtitles are “seamlessly integrated with the characters and the world of the film” so you forget you’re reading them, Brown says.
“The best translators are invisible.”