Film Titles in Translation: The Original Trilogy

Looking through my most recent posts, it seems that things have been a little bit serious around here. While I hope everyone has enjoyed the range of topics covered we all need a bit of light relief on occasion and this post is a return to the blog’s roots.

It has been quite a while since I first uncovered the basic trend of translators tackling titles dumbing them down or sexing them up before going on to look at sequels and series in translation as I did in the first two iterations of this series, but a sequel to the sequel was always on the cards as I just love the topic.

Rather than limiting myself to looking at movie trilogies (which would undoubtedly prove to be an unrewarding task), however, this post is a bit more of a mixed bag as I aim to get closer to unravelling the mystery of what goes through the mind of some translators. And hopefully there will be some laughs along the way.

So how about starting with some clear attempts at ‘dumbing down’ to get us back in the saddle? One great example is Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer. In France this became Wedding Singer – Demain on se marie ! [Wedding Singer – Tomorrow we’re getting married] while in Italy they went for Prima o poi me lo sposo [Sooner or later I’m marrying him], effectively giving away a huge chunk of the (albeit fairly predictable) plot turns.

Sticking with Sandler, you’d think that translating a title such as Happy Gilmore (being the name of the main character) would be a straightforward task – keeping that same name in the film would surely mean keeping the same title? And while this proved to be the case in France, in Italy (while the protagonist’s name did not change) the title became the unbearably explanatory Un tipo imprevedibile [An Unpredictable Guy].

Finally in this little section, hugely popular comedy Step Brothers also seems to have fallen prey to this method. In Italy, the title became Fratellastri a 40 anni [Step Brothers at 40] with a tagline of ‘Grown up but not yet mature’ and in France it was translated as Frangins malgré eux, literally meaning ‘Bros despite themselves’ or something like ‘Reluctant bros’ in marginally better English. In Quebec, however, where the country’s bilingual nature dictates that all films must bear a French translation even when the version in France would just take the English name (a policy usually resulting in strange titles such as Retour à Brooklyn [Return to Brooklyn] for Requiem for a Dream), they do a much better job of translating the title by keeping it simple, using Demi-frères [Step Brothers].

While the method of explicitation – or dumbing down – has been used on a regular basis to translate film titles (with or without justification), there still remain so many examples of translations which don’t seem to show any method at all. This serves to make the area so interesting and one obviously rich source is the James Bond series. In general, the titles are translated extremely closely throughout the series, but there is one period in particular that caused endless problems.

In Italy from 1985-89 the films’ titles seem to go completely crazy. You couldn’t even really hazard a guess at which films  Bersaglio mobile [Moving Target], Zona pericolo [Danger Area], Vendetta privata [Personal Vendetta] were meant to be but these three are the actual translations of A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill respectively.

While the fact that the first two of those three also suffered with their French translations, becoming Dangereusement vôtre [Dangerously Yours] and hilariously Tuer n’est pas jouer [Killing is not Playing], demonstrates the difficulty in translating these particular titles, the utterly forgettable results make you question how much thought they actually put into the translations (incidentally, in France they perhaps sensibly used the literal Permis de tuer for Licence to Kill). Meanwhile, the three most recent films in the series have all used their English title in Italy and France. Either this is an indication of the more recently developed allure of English in those countries or the translators just gave up.

Even now there are bizarre translations being produced on a regular basis. Take, for instance, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In France the titles stick very close to the English (with the exception of the fourth film On Stranger Tides which, when dumbed down in a similar way to the examples above, becomes ‘The Fountain of Youth’) but the first two Italian titles in particular are very interesting.

The first, The Curse of the Black Pearl in English, was translated as La maledizione della prima luna [The Curse of the First Moon] while the black pearl (perla nera) is used in the film so there appears to be no reason for the change – the best I can come up with is that the phrase prima luna rolls off the tongue much more easily than the awkward perla nera… Any thoughts?

Meanwhile the second film (Dead Man’s Chest) becomes La maledizione del forziere fantasma [The Curse of the Ghostly Treasure Chest] – another strange alteration to make, although thankfully the titles of the later films in the series don’t show the same insistence on being about a curse!

After all that, however, it’s worth mentioning that there are many excellent translations out there that have clearly been carefully considered in terms of their cultural validity and relevance to the film itself. One such example is the translation of Seven Pounds. The English title comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in which the central character demands the payment of a pound of flesh from those who are in debt to him, while in the film Will Smith has a debt to repay for the seven lives he took in a car accident.

In France the title becomes Sept vies [Seven lives] to avoid causing any confusing, as the French for ‘seven pounds’ is identical to ‘seven books’ (both are ‘sept livres’) and France also uses kilograms instead of pounds. Then, in the Italian version, the title was changed into Sette anime [Seven souls] which was of much more impact for the audience who may have been unfamiliar with the original reference.

9 thoughts on “Film Titles in Translation: The Original Trilogy

  1. Alina Cincan says:

    One of my favourite topics, as you know. Since I am huge fan of Johnny Depp and I have watched (almost) all his films, the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series was not to be missed, of course. But since I watched it in English, I was curious to see how the titles were translated into Romanian.

    This time there was no sexing up nor dumbing down involved. The Romanian titles closely follow the English ones and most of them actually sound really good – the exception (in my opinion) being the second one (Dead Man’s Chest) which was translated literally as ‘Cufărul omului mort’, but I would have opted for ‘Cufărul mortului’ (‘mort’ = dead, can be used as both adjective and noun). For me, the existing translation sounds like ‘Dead person’s chest’ – not the same impact as ‘Dead Man’s Chest’, right? As far as I can tell, there is no official translation for ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean 5 – Dead Men Tell No Tales’, but I’d go for ‘Morții nu vorbesc’ (dead men can’t talk). We shall see.

    • jaltranslation says:

      That’s really interesting. You’re exactly right about ‘Dead person’s chest’, it’s so bland – I can’t believe that they went with that! You should get in touch with these movie studios and show them how it should be done! 🙂

      I’m a big Depp fan too (although I’m not keen on the Pirates series) and I was convinced that Blow and Dead Man would have interesting translated titles but in fact they were just in English in both France and Italy. Anything interesting to report in Romanian for those two?

  2. Alina Cincan says:

    Dead Man was left in English, but Blow was translated as ‘Visul alb’ (White Dream) – Pretty creative, but it does not cover all the meanings of ‘blow’, not that it could probably, so I’d say a good choice all in all.

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