Care taken in Disney's English translations

Thanks to a certain giant lizard, Japanese-English dubbings have become a major punchline among American audiences.

Yet, after the success of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” — and the work of the husband-wife screenwriting team of Don and Cindy Hewitt — that reputation appears to be on the mend.

The Hewitts were working on another project at Pixar when John Lasseter asked them to flesh out a rough English version of “Spirited Away.” With only limited previous experience with either animation or Japanese culture, the couple tackled the project not as translators but as writers.

“I think that is the genius of John Lasseter, in that no one had ever hired screenwriters to do this before,” Don Hewitt tells Variety. “There’s an art to screenwriting and making dialogue sound natural, which is a part of Miyazaki’s theme. Mere translation just doesn’t capture that.”

As a starting point, the couple were provided with a rudimentary translation of the film’s Japanese dialogue.

“On ‘Spirited Away,’ we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t have even a template,” Cindy recalls. “There are so many Miyazaki fans, I thought, ‘Oh we’re going to do this bastardized version, and they’re going to be so upset.’ ”

The two eventually developed a technical style of screenwriting — counting syllables and utilizing gaps in dialogue — that would fill space and match lip movement without changing the meaning of the story. They even attended recording sessions, often incorporating an actor’s interpretation of a character into the script.

Disney was delighted with the results, hiring the Hewitts to prepare fresh English-language scripts for not only Miyazaki’s next toon, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” but also six classics from the Studio Ghibli back-catalog, including such cherished pics as “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.”

On Miyazaki’s latest release, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” the Hewitts relinquished writing duties to Oscar-nominated “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison, hand-picked by producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. The choice continues the Hewitt tradition of favoring a writer’s poetic touch over a straight translation.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more