Film titles in translation: The Good, the Bad and the Inexplicable.

The title says it all really: a blog about the translation of film titles.

Given the magnitude of the film industry, this relatively small sector of translation is clearly of utmost importance. With so many films released which are all vying for the public’s hard-earned cash, the power of a title cannot be overstated; it needs to be snappy, intriguing or iconic in order to fulfil its role of capturing the attention of the film’s desired target audience, and the same applies to films all around the world.

Yet so often the resulting translated titles seem completely baffling, coming out as something seemingly unrelated. There must be an explanation as to why the changes are made?!

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There are some cases when it is much more clear than others, one such example is the Italian version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which was released as Se mi lasci ti cancello (If you leave me, I’ll erase you); this title builds upon the already established reputation of Jim Carrey as a funnyman and leaves the audience expecting yet another wacky comedy. This is hardly an ethical decision as the film is a far cry from earlier roles such as Ace Ventura, but the end results presumably justified the means. Similarly, Bend it Like Beckham‘s Italian translation as Sognando Beckham (Dreaming About Beckham) ensures that the key mention, from a marketing perspective, of Beckham’s name is retained while the rest of the title is deemed quite irrelevant.

Other times it is a little less clear why the decision has been taken to alter a title, although  the author of this aptly named blog, Crap French Film Titles, seems to have the secret of title translation nailed in his subheading ‘dumb it down, sex it up’, as this select set of examples clearly demonstrate:

In Italian we have The French Connection as Il braccio violento della legge (The Violent Arm of the Law) making it very clear what the film is about and in French a few classics include The Italian Job simplified to L’or se barre (The Gold Clears Off), Meet the Parents becoming Mon beau-père et moi (My Father-in-law and I) and A Nightmare on Elm Street as Les Griffes de la nuit (The Claws of the Night).

When a film’s title is already amply self-explanatory it will generally stay the same or be translated very closely, although one bizarre example that I came across was the translation of Jaws. A pretty simple translation process here you would expect, but the translator’s faced with the task clearly disagreed: the French version adopted the passable Les Dents de la mer (The Teeth of the Sea) while the Italian version almost offensively underestimated the intellects of the general public with the title Lo Squalo (The Shark(!)).

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There are even times when the translation does not actually seem applicable to the film it describes. The most famous case of this that I have encountered is the Home Alone series of films, the first of which which is translated in both French and Italian as Mum, I missed the plane. This title is just about understandable, but the sequel – Mum I missed the plane again and I am lost in New York – while obviously named to provide continuity from the first film and dumbing the title down like many of the films above, is factually incorrect as Kevin actually just gets on the wrong plane this time…

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Of course it can be an extremely difficult task to transfer the title of a film successfully, especially when it is of a figurative nature or contains plays on words, and there are many examples of excellent, creative title translations such as Doctor Strangelove as Il dottor Stranamore and Docteur Folamour, but sometimes the best thing seems to be to just leave the title alone as much as possible (after all, what’s wrong with Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo?). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

8 thoughts on “Film titles in translation: The Good, the Bad and the Inexplicable.

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