A job right out of a movie

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A job right out of a movie

When Koreans go to see a foreign movie, the first name they see on the screen isn't "Tom Cruise" or "Steven Spielberg." It's "Lee Mi-do," whose given name means "road to America."

Mr. Lee's name also appears at the end of the movie, when the last scene fades out. He is usually among the first on the peninsula to see a new foreign movie. Why? He's the guy who writes the Korean subtitles. Local movie distributors consider him the best man at the job.

Mr. Lee's latest project is on "Catch Me If You Can," a thriller directed by Steven Spieberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It opens on Christmas in the United States and in late January in Korea; but Mr. Lee has already seen it three times.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in a Starbucks in southern Seoul, Mr. Lee was halfway through the book that the movie is based on. Asked to review the movie, he demurs: "Can't spill the beans."

He agrees to tell about his name. Mr. Lee's father was enamored with America, and insisted that his first child be named "road to America." Koreans use the Chinese character "mi" (meaning beauty, charm and grace) for the United States of America, while "do" means "road or truth."

"My father had such enormous adoration for everything related to America," Mr. Lee says. "He really wanted to send me over to the land of his dreams."

That admiration compelled Mr. Lee senior to teach himself English and Spanish, and find jobs on the U.S. Army base as a translator and librarian. "My dad had this knack for learning languages," he says.

Mr. Lee got the language gene, too. He started learning English via books, such as Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match-Seller." Under his father's guidance, he would learn every word by heart.

His father had long cherished a dream to emigrate to countries like America, Canada, Australia or Sweden, but his mother was not keen to the idea. "My parents did not get along very well, and I was brought up mostly by my grandmother," Mr. Lee says. Eventually his father chose the life abroad: He got a divorce, then remarried and moved to Australia.

Mr. Lee says he owes a lot to his father. The junior, now 41, is fluent in English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Swedish, which was his major in college. Mr. Lee's most precious childhood memory is going to the movies with his father. Their weekend outings were mostly to theaters on the U.S. Army base or other theaters showing movies from abroad. He still vividly remembers the thrill that "The Godfather," "Count Dracula" and "Waterloo Bridge" brought to him as a little boy. Mr. Lee says he often stole glances at his father's face during the movies to see if he was reading the subtitles or not.

In 1991, Mr. Lee lived up to his name. After graduating from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and serving in the army, he went to study marketing at the University of Illinois. "The funny thing is," Mr. Lee says, "that I missed Korea so much I came back after two years."

Back in Korea, Mr. Lee happened to get a part-time job for a small foreign movie distributing agency after being recommended by an acquaintance for his fine foreign language skills. "While helping out, I saw the agency having difficulty finding the right person to do translations," he says. He volunteered, just out of curiosity.

His first project was the "Three Colors" series, "Blue," "White" and "Red" by Krzysztof Kieslowski. In the nine years since, Mr. Lee has worked on more than 400 films. Name any big movie ? "Jerry McGuire," "Monsters, Inc.," "Shrek" ?and he probably wrote the subtitles. Last month he finished "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," which opens worldwide this Thursday. His coming projects include "Gangs of New York" by Martin Scorsese, "Pinocchio" by Roberto Benigni and even a Chinese movie, "Hero" by Zhang Yimou.

Mr. Lee is a real pro, says Jung Hyun-joo at Taewon Entertainment, distributor of "The Two Towers": "He knows the movie distributing system inside out, and takes care of every single detail; "We take every important, big movie to Mr. Lee, for he's the only one who can handle them." Even Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg seems to be grateful to Mr. Lee. In Mr. Lee's Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul office is a plaque presented by Mr. Katzenberg, out of gratitude for the worldwide success of "Shrek."

Up until the 1990s, the subtitles Koreans read were often flawed. In the final scene of a John Wayne movie, the line "I'm leaving for good" became "I'm leaving for justice." Mr. Lee has helped improve the situation.

Mr. Lee first sees a movie in the distributor's office; he records the sound and brings a videotape of the trailer to his office. Videotaping a film before its release is strictly forbidden. He makes a translation, then goes back to see the movie again a few times, then continues fixing to his heart's content. In his office, he keeps a laptop, a huge television set with an ultramodern sound system and books of all sorts. When he wrote the subtitles for last year's "A Beautiful Mind," he read up on math, science and even made friends with local scholars. His bookshelves are full.

The things that give Mr. Lee the most translating troubles are vulgarities and puns. In 1997's "Good Will Hunting," Minnie Driver's character tells a lewd joke in a bar. A direct translation would have forced the censors to ban the movie to anyone under 18, so Mr. Lee toned the joke down. "It was a quality film, so it needed to be available to teenagers." Instead of a joke about fellatio, as in the original, the joke in the subtitles was about a French kiss.

In "The People Versus Larry Flynt" (1996), a judge asks Larry Flynt: "Do you have aversion to a religion?" Flynt replies "A virgin?" Mr. Lee took liberties, and converted the pun to "complaints" and "testicles," which make a pun in Korean.

He is also very conscientious when it comes to profanities and slang. "My principle is to be cautious with vulgar and direct colloquial expressions," he says. When a little boy in "Jerry McGuire" makes an obscene gesture, Mr. Lee toned down the meaning of it placed in the subtitles. "Though it's the same message, people tend to take it more seriously when written than voiced," Mr. Lee says.

Mr. Lee gives the distributors advice as well as doing translations. In "I Am Sam" (2001), which had Beatles songs interweaved with the story, Mr. Lee insisted that the titles of the songs be presented in the subtitles. The distributor followed his advice, which turned out to be successful.

Mr. Lee gets quite a lot of feedback, which he welcomes, though some of it is caustic. Once, an Internet commentator wrote that Mr. Lee's translations were off, and summed up his sentiments with: "I will always hate you, Lee Mi-do."

His favorite films are those with good scripts, he says. "But I like films like 'Cast Away' that make my work easier."

Ms. Jung at Taewon Entertainment says that Mr. Lee is a big part of a film's success.

Still, Mr. Lee is humble -- to a point. "There are hundreds of millions of people out there whose English is a lot better than mine," he says. "But I dare say that I am the best at giving life to English movies by doing the translations in a sharp and suggestive manner."

by Chun Su-jin

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