Translating music: just jokes and gibberish?

After a busy few weeks, it’s finally time for another blog. I was trying to think of a topic covering a large area that I have completely overlooked so far and the one that came to mind was music.

In some ways it’s an obvious choice, it’s a passion of mine and a topic that fits in well with the other hugely general areas I’ve covered so far. (TV, film, books…) Yet, as I’ve chosen to look at music in popular culture in this post, problems arise in even finding a link to translation.

Unlike poetry, which is considered by many academics as the pinnacle of translation, the elite task of the translator, with the need to convey meaning alongside replicating rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, etc. (a topic for another day) or opera, where translation also plays a key role, there is obviously no real demand for the translation of lyrics in pop music aside from a curiosity on the part of the listener to discover what the lyrics mean. But there must be more to it than just being a good way to learn foreign languages?

Music clearly has a huge impact on cultures, indeed there are few better examples of the ideological power of music than the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a 70s folk singer from Detroit who, at least partially due to the prejudices against Latin American culture at the time, failed to sell any records in his homeland while unknowingly becoming the hero of the entire South African nation, selling over half a million copies of his album as his lyrics gave hope of change to a nation under Apartheid. An impressive link between music and culture, no doubt, but there is still a common language here and therefore no suggestion of music’s role across linguistic borders.

Here in England there is relatively little demand for non-anglophone music. With the amount of music available, the global domination of the English language and the lack of enthusiasm for learning foreign languages, the expected norm is that the English listener will have no knowledge or desire to work out the meaning of lyrics. This is demonstrated by the advertising technique used by Specsavers a few years ago where they took one of the few foreign tracks recognisable to an English audience – Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ – and by playing upon the viewer’s lack of linguistic knowledge, probably understanding the meaning of the title and no more, changed the meaning of the lyrics to advertise their brand and add a little humour.

(The song’s status as one of the only recognisable non-English tracks in England is further exemplified by its usage in this 90s advert for Heineken with a very young-looking Stephen Fry)

And it is these games that seem to be the extent of language’s influence when it comes to popular music. In Italy, where there is more of a desire to listen to English music but still a relatively low understanding of the language, the potential for play is high and one well-known example in particular is well worth sharing. (Skip to about 1:40 if you just want the song and not a little test of your Italian)

In 1972 Adriano Celetano released the single ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’, a track made up of pure gibberish (except the words ‘all right’) but which, by copying phonetic patterns of American English, is made to sound to an Italian audience like meaningful English sung with an accent. It’s fascinating to listen to for an English speaker and shows the full extent to which language can be manipulated.

Furthermore, it once again shows that it is a kind of non-translation or false translation – rather than the genuine transference of meaning – that is commonplace when popular music tackles the issue of language, with comprehension not important or even preferred.

All in all, these examples serve to demonstrate that when music crosses linguistic borders, language can often become little more than a tool to be manipulated.

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.

Adios.

The Magic of Translation

After recently posting on issues that don’t relate directly to translation in the traditional sense, I wanted to try to write something firmly on topic while still being accessible and targeting popular culture.The area of discussion in this post is literary translation which, while evading the majority of professional freelance translators, is still a huge part of the profession.

While much of the current focus in Translation Studies hinges on the acceptability of the prevailing strategy when working with literary texts which, due to a prioritisation of commercial interests, is to ‘domesticate’ the foreign text – to make the text read fluently so as not to pose difficulties to the reader and, ultimately, to give the impression that what you are reading is not a translation (one great metaphor I’ve come across likens translation to contraception in the way that the less it is noticed, the better it seems!) – I wanted to look at a quick example to try and simply demonstrate the extent of creative re-writing involved in literary translation in order to offer a small indication of the challenges posed by attempts to transfer meaning.

And what better example to use than the biggest of the big bestsellers: the Harry Potter series.

This series of books poses a huge range of translational obstacles and the overall aim of the translations is to try to reach the foreign audience with as much as possible of the many levels of meaning still in tact.

Features of the original such as the creation of new words, the repeated use of rhymes, anagrams, acronyms and cleverly formed names are just a few examples of such challenges and, by taking a few examples of wordplay and showing how they were dealt with, hopefully the strength of the translations – which ensured that the series became a global bestseller – will be clear.

As briefly mentioned above, names in the book often contain small plays on words and descriptions of the very character they name, with the example of Mad-Eye Moody being one prominent case in point. The French translation as Fol-Oeil Maugrey (with ‘maugréer’ meaning to grumble) manages to replicate much of the sound of the original while also maintaining this semi-hidden characterisation. Similarly, Madame Pomfrey (sounding like ‘frais’ meaning ‘fresh’) is neatly translated as Pomfresh in the French. Further still, the Sorting Hat of the original is cleverly renamed as La Choixpeau Magique (cleverly linking ‘chapeau’ (hat) and ‘choix (de) peau’ (choice of skin) to produce a magic skin choosing hat!)

One final, excellent example of the creativity in the translation lies in the key anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle and ‘I Am Lord Voldemort’: the French translation of his name as Tom Elvis Jedusor initially seems rather strange, until you realise that this is an anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’. Then, when you add in the fact that Jedusor sounds like ‘jeux du sort’, meaning ‘games of chance’ and paralleling the English surname Riddle, you have an extremely clever translation.

Of course, certain languages have been left with versions that are less successful (the Italian ‘Cappello Parlante’ (‘talking hat’ for Sorting Hat) is much less effective, and Madame Poppy Chips (for Pomfrey) is simply bizarre) and I can’t come close to even scratching the surface of the vast range of interventions that have been made throughout the entire series, but hopefully with these few examples I have managed to hint at the amount of linguistic gymnastics involved in transferring even small aspects of meaning that we take for granted from one language to another.

Selling Cars with Sex and Lies

On the back of looking at translating film titles, I thought that it would make sense to stick close by and have a look at another massive area for translation: advertising.

Here is an area that epitomises certain aspects of translation while, at least in the example I want to look at, often involving very little actual translation. Similarly to film titling, the key concern is to catch the attention of the target audience, whose hugely different cultural settings, social statuses and ideological viewpoints mean that wholesale changes are usually necessary.

Rather than picking up on translation disasters in marketing (maybe something like the introduction of sling rucksacks in German as Body Bags…), the example I wanted to use is actually quite successful and is useful in that it clearly shows how far a brand will tailor its marketing in an attempt to appeal to their desired audience.

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All of the clips are recent adverts from renowned Italian car manufacturer Fiat, well known for their long history and tradition in Italian culture, and it is this sense of tradition that they have often looked to build upon in the past in their marketing, with the typical UK advert highlighting the Italian tradition behind the cars. This was also replicated in their domestic marketing strategy, with Italian Fiat adverts equating to patriotic celebrations of cultural tradition and of the company itself (this being an extremely apt example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seJmEb0fcBA).

However, more recently, the marketing has become much more diverse based upon the shifting needs of their target audiences; even strategies at home in Italy have moved beyond patriotism and onto new, English-inspired advertising and this is seemingly due to conscious changes in their image following a global alliance with Chrysler in January 2009 and in order to compete with other companies such as Renault whose Italian adverts consistently boast the attraction of cool English slogans.

The transitional period that ensued from these changes can be seen in this Italian Fiat Panda advert which twins the images of Italian tradition with an English tagline, and the transformation is eventually fully realised in the advert for the Fiat 500L (below), which focuses on English words throughout and has a cover of a Beatles classic as the soundtrack to show the car maker’s newly expanded roots, all while ignoring ideas of heritage, tradition and Italian-ness all together.

Indeed, the different marketing strategies of the 500L prove to be fascinating all around the world, with stark contrasts to be found even within cultures of the same language.

While the car is marketed as an English-inspired family car in Italy, the UK advert markets it specifically as a car for mums, and as this article from the Guardian notes, the advert doesn’t actually show much of the car or say anything about its maker, it’s just left for the viewer to assume that if their lifestyle resembles that of the mother in the advert, then this car is for them.

Meanwhile, when marketed to a US audience, the car is consistently sexed up in a manner similar to the treatment of film titles going from English to French and Italian shown in the last blog. In the past, various adverts have shown that this sexing up can be done in a more or less brash fashion: the FIAT 500 Abarth USA ‘Seduction’ ad manages to sex up the car while retaining ideas of Italian tradition, yet the 500L adverts presented at the 2012 LA Auto Show just focus on a sexy theme and say nothing at all about the car, with the only hint of its roots coming from the soundtrack which, in the ‘Date’ advert in particular, seems to be just Italian gibberish used to give a hint of the international…

The important thing to bear in mind here is that the audience of these latter adverts – people at the LA Auto Show –  is likely to be made up of young, male, car-enthusiasts and so the branding has to be made to appeal to them despite the fact that the car is shown everywhere else to be directed at an entirely different market. And what’s the best way to catch the attention of young men..?

In the end, in order to attract the largest audiences, it seems that the key to translational success in another huge area can once again be summed up as ‘dumb it down, sex it up’, and this should surprise nobody.

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.

Better (trans)late than never…

First of all, apologies for the awful pun. It’s probably not the best way to begin your first ever blog but my thinking was that, from that initial low, the only way is up… and that can only be a good thing, right?!

As mentioned, this is my first ever blog; but why now? I guess now is really the first time I feel that there is something that I am really passionate about, and about which I have something valuable to say; I’ve spent the last few years really getting into translation theory, careering through all that translation studies has to offer and exploring the profession. But anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves..

I can’t realistically expect to say too much with this first blog and so I just wanted to say a little bit about myself and what it is that I do. For starters, I’m a freelance translator working from French and Italian to English, I completed my degree in French and Italian a few years ago now, lived in France and Italy and then went on to study an MA in Translation Studies which was brilliant. Quite simply, I’m a translation fanatic.

It wasn’t always that way though and looking back even a couple of years I’d have to admit that I didn’t even know what translation was! Of course, we all have an idea of what it involves and after four years of language study I thought that I had a better idea than most, but it wasn’t until I started my MA that I really started to realise ‘wow, there’s a lot more to this than learning the language and sitting in front of your laptop with a nice, big dictionary..’

Unfortunately, that is the view that many people have and that was pretty much my view after finishing my degree as I naively decided that I would start out in translation. I could speak the languages, I could rite quite gud, what more did I need? Surely it was just a matter of finding the one-to-one equivalent of each word and mixing it up a bit so that it sounded passable in English…

The idea that what you are producing is a text which must function in a desired way in a specific part of a culture alien to the original text hadn’t crossed my mind. Considerations of ethical issues, fidelity to clients, authors, readers, the way the translation industry actually works, the implications of your decision to translate a certain term in a certain way, all meant nothing to me.

Of course I realise that all of this raises many more questions than it answers, and in a way that was the aim of the exercise. If people start to question what is involved in translation, then that is a great thing. Proper training is absolutely vital for the translation community to earn the respect it deserves and hopefully I can begin to demonstrate some of the things that are at stake when translating with future blogs…

Here’s to hoping.