What is the meaning of "Hemlock" in the film The Conformist (1970)?
April 25, 2018 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I've encountered a strange problem while translating this famous Bernardo Bertolucci film. (I'm working from an English translation, and I only speak basic Italian.) Please read on if you're familiar with the film or the source novel, or speak Japanese!

So, Clerici visits his mother and her driver, whom everyone refers to as "Alberi". In the English subtitles, his name is translated as "Hemlock", even though "alberi" just means "trees", and the hemlock is a poisonous plant (and names are usually transliterated, not translated). Then, Clerici explains that the driver's actual name is "Ki", which means "Hemlock" in Japanese, which is false as far as I can tell. (I also checked a Spanish translation, and there, the driver's name is translated as "Abeto", which apparently means "fir tree".)

Can anyone untangle this mess? I guess I can just substitute any last name which is also the name of a tree, but I'm wondering if there's some deeper meaning I'm missing.
posted by Silky Slim to Society & Culture (8 answers total)
Hemlock the tree (Tsuga spp.) is completely unrelated to the poison hemlock, which is in the carrot/celery/parsley family.

The hemlock tree is called "hemlock" in English because the leaves smell a bit similar to the poison herb when crushed. But the scientific name "Tsuga" comes directly from the Japanese term.

Sorry I can't help with the main question, but this is just to say you are right: tsuga is the Japanese word for the tree we call hemlock.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:38 AM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

There's poison hemlock but there are also hemlock trees, a group of evergreens, which aren't poisonous. They're pretty common in Japan. Ki is also the word for tree in Japanese.
posted by Mizu at 8:38 AM on April 25, 2018

Can anyone untangle this mess?

So please clarify, you're translating the English subtitles into ... what language? Japanese?

Just a stab in the dark, maybe the person who wrote the subtitles substituted "hemlock" for "tree" just on a whim. You can probably go with "tree" in your target language.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:03 AM on April 25, 2018

Response by poster: JimN2TAW: Yep, that's basically what I was thinking. (I'm translating into Hebrew.)
Mizu and SaltySaltcid: Thank you as well, I didn't know about hemlock trees and missed the Ki-tree connection. "Hemlock" mostly brought up Hamlet, poison etc. for me.
posted by Silky Slim at 9:10 AM on April 25, 2018

I guess I can just substitute any last name which is also the name of a tree

Yeah, something that means tree or a type of tree, but is also quirky enough to be a name or nickname. "Tree" in English is kind of ridiculous as a name, but "Hemlock" is unique enough to be a name.

I guess "Alberi" can pass as a name or nickname in Italian (don't know), while "trees" wouldn't work in English. "Woody" would be a great English translation.

Thanks for the interesting question.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:37 AM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

This blog post from 2008 uses this as an example of the poor subtitle translation on the US DVD of the film. You might want to check an alternate English-language source - say, this 2013 UK Blu-ray or this 2014 US Blu-ray - to see how they translate the name.
posted by Awkward Philip at 9:47 AM on April 25, 2018

> "Tree" in English is kind of ridiculous as a name, but "Hemlock" is unique enough to be a name.

Not true: Tree is uncommon but not at all ridiculous. It could perfectly well be used.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2018

When Alberì is used as a nickname in Italian, it's short for Alberico. It doesn't mean trees in this case, just as the nickname "Dick" doesn't mean "penis."
posted by ubiquity at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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