Money Heist in Trans-lation

It’s been a week now and I keep thinking about a scene in Season 4, Episode 6 of Netflix’s La Casa de Papel. No, not THAT SCENE. As a translator and as someone who cares about trans identity, the earlier introduction of a trans character stuck with me. 

In the scene, two old friends are reunited after one has transitioned. Her old friend understands that she is a woman now, but has trouble understanding that she’s always been a woman. To explain, she tells him what she used to do after they pulled jobs.

Cuando Juanito terminaba de robar contigo, se iba a su casa, a su cuarto. Se ponía su musiquita, se hacía su buen porrito, se pintaba los labios rojos que yo tenía, divina, rojo Ferrari, y cogía el porrito y se tumbaba en la cama. Y en esos ratos, en esos momentos, sola, tranquila, guapísima, en esos momentos era yo de verdad.

The English subtitles said:

When Juanito got out of a robbery with you, he’d go back home into his room. He’d put on a little music. He’d roll a little joint and put on some red lipstick. Italian lipstick. It looked wonderful. And he’d take his joint and he’d lie down on the bed and right there, in that moment, alone, relaxed, looking gorgeous that was the moment I was me, for real.

If you haven’t been paying attention to trans identity, this seems fine. If you have, but you don’t speak Spanish, you might assume that the writers mishandled it. The Spanish writer didn’t.

There is no he in the original. She uses gender-neutral reflexive verbs and possessive pronouns. The only time a gender appears in the original line is in the adjectives at the end. Sola, tranquila, and guapísima are all feminine.

The Spanish writer handled it beautifully. Leaving gender ambiguous between the character’s deadname and her feminine description of herself subtly highlighted the dissonance between her friend’s assumption and her experience. Most ways to write that line would have used gendered words throughout. Instead, the Spanish writer’s choices created this lovely moment.

That’s why context is so important in translation. Most translation engines would see Juanito at the start of the sentence and automatically translate se and su to he and his. How would you program an algorithm to understand a scene about gender identity and transition?  

On the other hand, many human translators also default to he/his when translating se/su. It’s easy to see how translators could do that here if they weren’t aware of the language around trans identity or didn’t have a way of asking about the intended meaning.

I have no idea if Netflix is using a translation engine or a human translator. I’ve never seen a translation engine handle slang so well, so I would assume there’s a person somewhere in the chain. I don’t know if this was the translator’s failure to understand trans identity or the company’s failure to give English subtitles the time and resources needed for true accuracy. Either way, a beautiful scene got lost in translation.

Featured image Season 4 poster of La Casa de Papel, copyright Netflix