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.

The Delicate Art of Subtitling: Capturing the language of the banlieues.

I thought that today I would try to deal with a subject that is slightly alien to me, yet one which I find extremely interesting and something that everyone will have come across: the art of subtitling.

First of all, I have to admit that I am not an expert in subtitling, far from it. I have read up on the subject and done some work involving subtitling in the past and I just wanted to share and contextualise some of the unique challenges that it poses.

From a monolingual point of view alone subtitling is an extremely difficult task to get right and, as subtitling relies on the suspension of disbelief, the importance of the text extends beyond a simple communication aid to a piece of the drama in its own right where textual breaks can completely ruin the illusion.

When you look at the list of pre-requisites and constraints for a single piece of subtitling, the skill involved in the task of the subtitler is brought into much sharper focus. Take, for example, the fact that a subtitle can contain a maximum of 35 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation) up to a maximum of two lines – not even half a tweet to get across everything being rapidly churned out on screen. Then combine that with the facts that the average viewer can read a two-line subtitle of 70 characters in 6 seconds while the subtitle cannot run over a cut or change of scene, and your work is really cut out.

Furthermore, each subtitle has to be a coherent, logical unit in its own right, with line breaks appearing as if they are naturally-occuring. Take the example below: the first rendering of the line break is unnacceptable while the second makes the message more readable and coherent as well as adoping a pyramid shape (rather than the inverted pyramid of the first) which is always preferred by the human eye. Phew!

Why did you do it? Kevin

will not be happy.

should be

Why did you do it?

Kevin will not be happy.

This is not to mention the fairly obvious facts that the subtitle should also aim to synchronise as much as possible with the audio track all while ensuring instant comprehension without obstructing the importance and effect of the image on the screen, which serves to further complicate the task.

Although translation may seem like just a small addition given these strict constraints, it adds a great number of additional challenges – cultural, practical and linguistic in nature – such as the languages using differing amounts of characters or being spoken at different speeds, or even concepts being introduced that would normally require lengthy explanations for the target audience.

Next – as an example of some tricky subtitling – I want to look at a scene from the French film La Haine which, while it remains a favourite of French teachers here in England as the complexity of the language – with its copious amounts of slang – and the subject matter addressed make it an extremely interesting project for students, seems to have bypassed many French audiences. The film follows three friends in their early twenties from different immigrant backgrounds living in a ZUP – zone d’urbanisation prioritaire – (an impoverished multi-ethnic housing project) in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris and chronicles their various struggles over a roughly 19 hour period.

The scene in question (click the image for the video) directly addresses their disconnect with the rest of Parisian society as the three friends attend a modern art exhibition in Paris. Linguistically, this disconnect is clearly demonstrated in the French through the colloquial nature of their speech and this is an extremely challenging issue for the subtitler to capture precisely, as they aim to express this fluctuating formality while battling the constraints listed above.

Here, the subtitler attempts to lower the register in English by using colloquial contractions such as ‘outta my way’ (0:13) or ‘Awwright’ (0:50) in Hubert’s speech before contrasting this with the more standard language employed when he is speaking with the two women. Another method used in an attempt to demonstrate this different dialect/idiolect is the substitution of their urban Parisian slang with a semi-African American dialect as the American translators were clearly of the opinion that this would resonate better with their target audience, only to be widely criticised for this ambitious and contradictory leap which only serves to complicate matters. In the clip above, for example, Hubert’s ‘mothafuckas’ (3:12) or Said’s reference to the black woman as ‘sister’ (0:37) which contrasts with the UK-version subtitle of ‘the black one’ – a slightly closer rendering of the French dialogue which avoids the confusion of adding another ethnic background into the dialogue – are both examples of this interesting, yet flawed, method of capturing the language of the banlieues.

These struggles to accurately capture the exact register of speech continue throughout the entire film and the role of subtitler in this case is an unenviable task! While this post only scratches the very surface of what is involved, I hope it has proven to be an interesting insight into the challenges that the role of subtitler offers up.

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?!


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(!)).


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…


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.