Trapped in Toyland: Effective non-translation in Toy Story

A far cry from last time’s outing, which listed some of the best online resources out there to help you get better acquainted with translation studies as a discipline, today’s post is perhaps a bit more fun.

As one of the defining films of my childhood, Toy Story has always had a special place in my heart and I wanted to look at some of the interesting tidbits that have emerged from its global success – the trials and tribulations of translating such a tale for toy lovers around the world… if you will.

While I’ve tackled the translation of film titles on several occasions in the past and regard it as an extremely interesting topic, the fact that Toy Story has retained its English title quite consistently around the globe seems to suggest that this line of enquiry is one of little merit.

There is the obligatory French translation (Histoire de Jouets) in Quebec, and in Italian the subtitles added to each film seem to follow the formula of dumbing down titles in translation that I discussed in my other posts on the topic (the first becomes Toy Story – Il mondo dei giocattoli [The world of toys], the second adds Woody e Buzz alla riscossa [Woody and Buzz to the rescue] and the third adds La Grande Fuga [The great escape]), but there is little else of note. However, it is precisely this non-translation that counter-intuitively offers some interesting insights that I will look at in more detail later in the post.

Of course, there’s the usual mix of tricky translations to deal with within the film’s narrative. The riddle of Al’s Toy Barn in the second film is one great example that sees the toys struggling with the meaning of the car licence plate LZTYBRN (Al’s Toy Barn with the vowels removed). In French, the translators completely ignored the significance of the licence plate, having selected a fairly literal translation of the shop’s name (La Ferme aux Jouets d’Al) that was impossible to link to the letters available. I’d certainly be interested to know if there are any more creative versions in other languages that manage to incorporate the licence plate.

Furthermore, one interesting point is that the film’s iconic theme tune – Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend in me’ – is actually translated into French (Je suis ton ami – below) and Spanish (Hay un amigo en mi). While the Spanish version is used in conjunction with the ‘Spanish Buzz’ gag in the third film and adopts a flamenco-based orchestration, the French version is something of an oddity as the song’s lyrics have just been translated and played over the existing music, something that is quite rare. Indeed, the entire French soundtrack received this same treatment in a move that is perhaps due to the slightly more Anglo-skeptic nature of French audiences (something to be discussed below) or is perhaps just a challenge that the movie’s producers set themselves…. Either way, it is well worth a listen for the clever transposition of the lyrics.

However, the most interesting insights come from outside of the main storyline and the title of the second film in Italian mentioned above hints at this point of interest – the clue lies in the fact that Woody and Buzz remain untranslated. While Woody’s name, coming from the African-American Western actor Woody Strode, could easily be translated to reflect a similar cultural reference, Woody, Buzz and several of the more minor characters’ names are consistently left unchanged or, if altered, are translated simply to reflect to real-life toy that they depict (e.g. M. Patate / Señor Patata – Mr. Potato Head). This retention of the same names is particularly true of cultures that are more accepting of English – such as Italian, where all of the characters’ names remain untranslated – and it is a clear indication of the powerful marketing strategies operating on a wider scale.

In the case of France, meanwhile, where there is more pride associated with the native language and a less favourable opinion towards Anglicisms, there has been more of an effort to rebrand the names (Buzz Lightyear becomes Buzz l’Eclair, for example, and Wheezy is renamed Siffli in an attempt to match the pun – an opportunity that is not taken in Italian or Spanish) but ultimately the importance afforded to the core marketing terms (Woody, Buzz, Toy Story etc.) overrides this cultural trait.

Furthermore, the names that are translated in French are themselves equally concerned with positive marketing as they are always well thought-out, catchy and in-keeping with general naming trends among toys: Slinky becomes Zigzag, Stinky Pete becomes Papi Pépite [Grandpa Nugget – using the mining reference], Bullseye becomes Pile-Poil [spot-on, exactly] and Hamm becomes Bayonne (a famous ham-making region in France).

The memorable nature of these names and the repeated use of rhyme and alliteration mark these out as something beyond the ordinary translation. Indeed, the translation of names in France was not only a tool to provide a small touch of humour to viewers but also a means of marketing the toys to the general public, a clever opportunity that was perhaps slightly ignored by the Italian translators (although the merchandise still undoubtedly sold well in Italy under the English branding). Ultimately, it’s not surprising that all of the toys were successfully marketed in France (anyone want a Pile-Poil doll?).

So what can Toy Story tell us about translation? Above all, both the translation and non-translation of various elements within and surrounding the films demonstrate that the power of global marketing consistency can be more influential than linguistic considerations when mediating between cultures, particularly when the source language enjoys the kind of global hegemony that English does. Toy Story is quite unique in its marketing potential (how many children could resist the lure of wanting a Woody or Buzz of their own after watching the film?) but this is a choice that is reflected in many translations these days, where a brand must choose between comprehension and consistency in their branding.

In this particular case, even the decision to leave the title as untouched as possible is a strategic one (rather than being the result of laziness). The film’s logo and distinctive colour scheme are now instantly recognisable and this greater consistency has ensured unrivalled brand value on a global scale rather than fragmenting international markets.

Ultimately, aside from the lovable characters, enjoyable storylines and clever marketing, it seems that the strategic translation choices (or the lack of translation all together) made along the way have been one of the key factors in the series’ continuing success that saw the first film alone make $361 million worldwide.

To infinity and beyond / Vers l’infini et au-delà / Verso l’infinito…e oltre! / Hasta el infinito… ¡y más allá!

– Buzz Lightyear

The 12 days of Christmas: A JALTranslation special

Before I sign off for the year, I thought it would be nice to have a little festive fun. Over the course of the last 12 months, I’ve come across a selection of funny images tailor-made for translation nuts and grammar geeks like myself and thought it would be nice to share them on my blog. So here are 12 of my favourites to put the Ho Ho Ho into your holiday season.

There’s a bit of everything in there: some linguistic silliness, grammar police-y punning and film title translations very much in line with blog posts I’ve brought you over the last year.

All that remains is to wish you all the very best for the holiday season and an enjoyable start to 2014. I’ll see you in the new year. Enjoy!




Wall Painting




It's a metaphor


CAT Tool


Sixth sense




French windows


Meaning of this




In Seine


Future perfect passive

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.

Managing mistakes: Getting ‘wrong’ right

While the topic for today’s post is something that I touched upon in my recent guide to translating medical texts, I feel that it is something so engrained in the translation act that it is worth a more detailed exploration.

In that post (under the sub-heading of ‘Poorly written texts’) I explained that technical texts are very frequently marred by the presence of many mistakes (typographical, stylistic, grammatical, formatting…) and here I want to further explore this feature of texts along with an array of weird and wonderful examples from a variety of sources in order to highlight the issues that they pose for the translator’s work.

Firstly, just to show that I’m not exaggerating the importance of this issue, why not have a quick glance at this text from the African Journal of Neurological Sciences – an interesting article and a quite typical medical journal entry, and one that is littered with examples of each of the aforementioned errors:

Examples of formatting and stylistic errors include the incorrectly placed space following the phrase ‘une alternative intéressant .’ (line 93), the unnecessary usage of a capital for ‘Plus de 77%…’ (line 61) as well as the inconsistent or unnecessary usage of full stops and commas in decimals, capitals for references to tables, and last but not least between using numerals or their full, written versions e.g. ‘Quatre enfants’ and ‘2 cas’ (lines 38 and 29 respectively).

In addition to these examples, instances of typographical and grammatical errors include the misspellings of ‘haemophilus’ as ‘heamophilus’ (23), ‘aiguë’ as ‘aigue’ (64), ‘tétraventriculaires’ as ‘tétraventiculaires’ (80) and ‘hypertension’ as ‘hyperetension’ (figure 3) or the lack of agreement for ‘séries européenne(s)’ (55). Finally, the worst examples of errors must be the reference to table 6 on line 33 when there are only five tables and the usage of the non-existent ‘dérivation standard’ (table 4) – presumably a guess at the French version of the English term ‘standard deviation’ (which is actually ‘écart type’).

This may seem like an extreme example yet the truth is that mistakes can and will happen in almost any kind of text (even in big budget Hollywood movies, as we will see) and the importance of taking the time and effort to proofread work cannot be overstated.

Films obviously offer different challenges to written texts in the way that there are aesthetic and audio elements serving to complicate matters. For example, how could the translator go about dealing with this example from Aladdin? The animators clearly tried to make all the writing in the film look Arabic yet when we see the faces of Jafar and the Sultan reading a scroll, their eyes move from left to right (Arabic is read right to left). In this instance – when the translator has no control over the error – they must shift their focus to ensuring that they don’t introduce any new errors in their work, which can see the translation process turn into something resembling a game of chinese whispers as is the case with the error below.

In this scene from French film Amélie (below, 0:28 onwards) where the death of Princess Diana is announced on the news, the narrator declares that the death occurred ‘dans la nuit du 30 août 1997′ [on the night of 30th August 1997] when it was in fact widely acknowledged to be the 31st August – a small detail, perhaps, but one which causes the translator/subtitler a bit of a problem.

When a factual error such as this is found in a ST, the translator faces the dilemma of whether to remain faithful to their source and knowingly reproduce the error with the risk of it later being attributed to the translator themselves or whether to stray from the text and correct the error. In his excellent 2001 Revising and Editing for Translators, Brian Mossop suggests that ‘factual errors should be corrected if they seem to be inadvertent but not if they are important as author’s ignorance of the facts’ and, as the former appears to be the case here, the translator should presumably correct the error.

However, in the English subtitle the translator not only neglects to change the date (perhaps it was not spotted or they deemed it unimportant) but also renders the French simply as ‘on August 30th 1997′ which, while seemingly only a small change, actually serves to compound the error (the night of the 30th and early hours of the 31st could perhaps be seen as nearly interchangeable, whereas this subtitle loses that margin for error).

Facts and figures are an obvious place to find errors that can easily be overlooked as it is easy to assume that something is correct, yet it is always worth double checking.

While it is quite obvious in this previous example that the error is not intentional, there are other times when the author’s intentions are must more difficult to ascertain:

In his 2012 film Django Unchained – which toys with the traditional spaghetti western, known for playing fast and loose with history – Quentin Tarantino treats us to all kinds of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (how about the use of dynamite years before its invention…). In the introduction we’re greeted with the subtitle ‘1858: Two Years Before The Civil War.’ when the war actually began in 1861.

Yet here, despite the obvious errors, the translator’s task is more difficult than ever. Given Tarantino’s previous work (think Inglorious Basterds) it is actually quite likely that the mistakes are intentional and – rather counter-intuitively – the correct decision for the translator to take is to maintain the errors even when it is in their control to change them, as with the opening subtitle.

Ultimately, it is important that the translator fulfils their extended role as proofreader and editor in both ensuring that mistakes present in the source text are spotted and that they don’t introduce more mistakes in their own work. This task is made slightly more manageable when working with written tasks due to the fact that the translator can often contact clients or authors to seek clarification on certain issues while the single-layered medium of writing (i.e. no contradictory visual or audio issues to contend with as in the examples above) reduces some of the burden. However, despite its importance, it remains an under-appreciated element of the translators task.

Guest Post: Film Titles – A Puzzling Matter.

Having enjoyed Joseph’s articles on translating film titles (The Good, the Bad and the Inexplicable and the sequel), I accepted his ‘challenge’ to talk (well, write) about English film titles translated into Romanian: the good and the bad.

As a film lover and a linguist, I could go on and on and on and on (you get my drift) about this topic, but I’ll try to be brief (sort of).


The Good

In this category, I am going to include films whose titles have been translated literally and worked just fine (without resorting to unnecessary gimmicks and metaphors, although I have to admit I do like the French title for ‘Jaws’ – ‘Les dents de la mer’) and those whose titles have been changed for the best.

Literal translation

Some films titles that have kept the same meaning as the original and are excellent examples that sometimes a literal translation can work: ‘The Godfather’ (Nașul), ‘Jaws’ (Fălci), ‘The Sixth Sense’ (Al șaselea simț), ‘Black Swan’ (Lebăda neagră).

Slightly changed

Some translators have done a brilliant job. Speaking of brilliant, take for instance ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The Romanian translation  – ‘O minte sclipitoare’ – means ‘a brilliant mind’, which definitely conveys the idea of the film. Had the translator used ‘frumoasă’ (the exact equivalent of ‘beautiful’), it would have sounded awkward.

To Kill a Mockingbird’  – the only change was made to mockingbird, which was rendered as ‘singing bird’. The change is perfectly justified, as there is no popular term for ‘mockingbird’ in Romanian and using the scientific name was obviously not a choice. Although there is a bird called ‘gaiță’ which can mimic other birds’ sounds, this word is also used with a pejorative connotation (a person who talks a lot without saying anything meaningful). So, excellent choice.

Finding Nemo’ became ‘Looking for Nemo’ (În căutarea lui Nemo). While English is a lot more flexible in using the gerund form, somehow that does not work the same way in Romanian, as a noun would be used in constructions such as the one in the title.  And since the corresponding noun for ‘finding’ would have sounded clumsy, the translator found the perfect solution. Well done!

Some Like It Hot’ – ‘Unora le place jazz-ul’ (Some like jazz). Well, with so many different meanings of the word ‘hot’ in English, I am afraid it would have been impossible to find a perfect equivalent, so I think the title is pretty decent.

The Bad

Now comes the fun part that you’ve all been waiting for!

To be fair, there are titles that cannot be easily translated as they convey a (sometimes, ‘double’) meaning which must be looked for in the word collocation/formation or even more deeply, in the setting, history or tradition of the characters involved. Words of foreign origin – loan words – puns (especially if they are the result of ‘merging’) may be extremely tricky and require special attention. In my opinion, no title should be translated before the film has been watched to the very end and thoroughly understood. A foreigner doing a translation into their mother tongue had better check a few film reviews before making up their mind what to do with the title. The top film critics of the world have probably written a word or two about it.

There are several categories of badly translated titles. Some, the less horrifying category, may not be far from the original but still don’t have the same effect upon the viewer as the original ones would do. Others tend to keep little of the original meaning (together with its underlying impact) simply because they have not looked at it as carrying a metaphorical meaning instead of the literal one. A third group comprises those titles which are not at all translations of the original ones but adaptations or interpretations, someone’s idea regarding the ‘essence’ of the film which is not always what the director and screen writer had in mind.

Why turn ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ into ‘The prison of angels’ (Închisoarea îngerilor) when there is a proper noun followed by another quite ‘translatable’ common noun in that title?

Or why pick one of the least relevant meanings of the word ‘dark’ and decide to translate ‘The Dark Knight‘ in such a way that it comes to mean ‘The Black Knight’ (Cavalerul Negru)? Does the character seem to wear too much ‘black’ in the film or should the translator have found another word?

Déjà vu’ starring Denzel Washington was translated ‘Dincolo de trecut’ (Beyond the past). While it sounds great, it could have very well been left as ‘Déjà vu’, as this French borrowed term is used in Romanian in the same way, so there would be no confusions.

But my pet peeves are the titles whose translations contain spoilers. Why ruin it for the viewers? See below:

The UnbornMisterul Gemenilor (The mystery of the twins). Great! Thanks!

Bruce AlmightyDumnezeu pentru o zi (God for a day). Hmmm, I wonder what the film may be about?

There would be a third category – the untranslated (which can sometimes work and sometimes… not really), but I’m afraid I will bore you to death, so I’ll stop for now.

The list and comments above are, of course, subjective (some may have a different opinion), but I would say I have tried to be as objective as possible (as an experienced linguist).

There are so many things to explore when it comes to film translation, that one post is not enough. While writing this, I also delved deeper into the topic and wrote another article, Challenges in Film Translation published on our blog, which deals with issues such as slang, swear words and nicknames. Hope you enjoy both reads and comments are always welcome.


About Alina
I am a former teacher, translator and interpreter with over 8 years’ experience, now Managing Director at 
Inbox Translation, a London based translation agency. I am a language geek who likes to keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry. When I am not writing on my own blog, I am writing on other people’s. You can get in touch on Google+ and LinkedIn.


Joseph: I just want to quickly thank Alina for agreeing to be a guest writer and especially for the excellent post; if any other readers out there would like to tackle a topic from my blog from a fresh perspective or in another language pair then please do get in touch ( or leave a comment). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and it would be great to publish some similar posts in the future!

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 Sequel

Hot on the heels of my last post, which was a bit heavier than usual, I thought I’d get back into familiar territory with something a bit more fun. Seeing as my first post on the translation of film titles had a fair bit of interest and was so fun to write, I thought I’d write a sequel about sequels.

Rather than looking at films that simply add ‘2’ or ‘3’, which would hardly be the most interesting read, I went for films that aimed for a bit more in the titling, often using the name of the first film as a basis for other titles in the series. As you can imagine, with the title of the first film often being completely transformed in translation, this can cause all sorts of problems, and translators have had varying degrees of success over the years.

So, for your reading pleasure, here are some of the funnier and more interesting examples I came across.

The Terminator Series

Starting with one of the biggest movie series around, it is interesting to see how translation deals with the changing subtitles in each film which often contain biblical references. While ‘Judgement Day’ is changed to its accepted cultural equivalent in both French and Italian (‘Le Jugement dernier’ and ‘Il giorno del giudizio’) and ‘Rise of the Machines’ is translated closely, ‘Terminator Salvation’ was cleverly retitled ‘Terminator Renaissance’ in the French over a more literal translation as it retains the biblical nature of the title and sounds much better than ‘Terminator Salut’ (literally: salvation) which could be mistaken as meaning ‘Terminator Hi’.

The Die Hard series has some of the most confused naming across the series that you’ll ever find. While the English versions add a unique tagline, retaining the crucial words ‘Die Hard’ (Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance etc.), several of the European releases made this kind of linking impossible from the outset.

The first film in the series was released as ‘Trappola di Cristallo’ in Italian and ‘Piège de cristal’ in French meaning ‘Crystal Trap’ while the second was named ’58 minutes to live’ and ’58 minutes to die’ in France and Italy respectively. Both of these titles relate much more closely to the plot but carry no link between the two films.

After this, presumably due to the growing global stature of the series, and realising the need to try and make up for these early mistakes, each of the films just used the English ‘Die Hard’ in the titles, followed by a translated tagline (e.g. ‘Die Hard – Vivere o morire’ (to live or die) for ‘Live free or die hard’ in Italy) except the French version of the third film which stuck with its initial tactics and named the film ‘Une journée en enfer’ (A day in hell).

One final, interesting note on the series is that in the German release of the first film, the German names of the terrorists were changed to American equivalents in order to make it easier for the audience to identify with the protagonist by inverting the enemy’s cultural bases. As such, Hans became Jack, Karl became Charlie and Heinrich became Henry.

The Naked Gun

While the Die Hard translators failed to keep a common thread going throughout the series, the titles of this trilogy are dealt with well in both French and Italian, and in two distinct ways. While the Italian sticks close to the original titles, adopting a clever translation for ‘The Naked Gun’ in ‘Una Pallottola Spuntata’ (lit. A blunt bullet, keeping the idiomatic nature and some of the innuendo of the original) and adding fitting taglines, the French translation completely transforms the title but keeps it consistent and fitting throughout the series: The first film becomes ‘Y a-t-il un flic pour sauver la reine?’ (Is there a cop to save the queen?), the second ‘Y a-t-il un flic pour sauver le président?’ ( Is there a cop to savethe president?) and the third ‘Y a-t-il un flic pour sauver Hollywood’ (guess), each referring closely to the individual plots.

Dumb and Dumber

Together with the sequel/prequel ‘Dumb and Dumberer’, this pair have two of the most challenging titles around. With their use of the comparative that cannot be replicated in many languages and the ungrammatical nature of the second mirroring the subject matter, any translator has their work cut out. (For me, the title was one of the only good things about the second film)

The Italian deals with it literally and chooses to avoid the wordplay of the second title as much as possible: ‘Scemo e piu scemo’ (lit. Dumb and more dumb) for the first and ‘Scemo e piu scemo – Iniziò cosi’ (Dumb and more dumb – How it started) for the second. Meanwhile, the French version managed to avoid any trouble by leaving both titles untranslated.

Fortunately in Quebec, with the equal status given to both English and French meaning that all films are released in both languages, we get two interesting titles. The first becomes ‘La cloche et l’idiot’, quite a literal translation which uses colloquial language in a similar way to the English, and the sequel becomes ‘Plusse cloche et très zidiot’ (lit. More dumb and very idiotic) but with the spellings changed in a ridiculous manner to mirror the idiotic nature of the content, showing that even some more complex linguistic games can be replicated to an extent in a foreign tongue.

Laziness Prevails

Nevertheless, for every translation that is well thought out and takes cultural and linguistic concerns into account (how about ‘East is East’ becoming ‘Fish and Chips’ – written in English – in France…), there are times when the translator seems to consider the wordplay in the title just too much of a hassle and resorts to boring, unimaginative naming. This is the case with ‘The Fast and The Furious’ sequel ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ becoming ‘Rapides & Dangereux 2’ in Quebec and just ‘Fast and Furious 2′ in French’

Further examples of this kind include ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’ (the sequel to Excellent Adventure) which becomes ‘Les Aventures de Bill et Ted’ (the Adventures of Bill and Ted) and ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ (I haven’t seen it, honest) becoming ‘Alvin et les chipmunks 2’ in French. Some of the least inspired titles around.

Finally, before I go, I thought I’d include one little bonus translation. A few weeks ago I was asked: ‘why does ‘The Hangover’ become ‘Very Bad Trip’ – written in English – in the French release’

The answer: while French does have an equivalent for a hangover (‘gueule de bois’, literally a wooden mouth), the phrase ‘faire un bad trip’ is widely recognised by French people and reflects the film’s US roots in a comprehensible manner. So there you have it.