Translators are often viewed as cultural mediators, and this is particularly true in cinematography when translating film titles. Rendering a film title in a different language is not so much about translation as it is about localisation and adapting the title to the target culture. Movie titles often rely on word play, references and slang, which makes their translation particularly challenging. Most of the time, it is actually not the translator who decides on the translation of a film title but the producers or marketing department, based on what they think will boost sales. From hilariously atrocious to curiously unsubtle, what are some of the trends that we’ve identified in the translation of film titles?
(Please note that some plot summaries below may contain spoilers.)
When translating film titles, some require a higher degree of localisation than others. This is the case of the 2009 animation “Cloudy with a chance of meatballs”, in which a machine that turns water into food ends up in the sky and rain suddenly becomes very nutritious. In Israel, instead of meatballs, the title was translated to contain a dish that is slightly more popular locally: ‘It’s raining Falafel’ (“גשם של פלאפל”). Often, a cultural reference is difficult to translate when the quote or allusion might be unfamiliar to most people in the target audience. The 2004 romantic science-fiction film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” references Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard, in which Eloisa can find solace only by forgetting her unhappy love. In the film, an estranged couple erase each other from their memories – literally. Pope’s quote would probably have eluded audiences in other countries, where producers adopted various tactics. In Poland, the literary reference was replaced by culturally-specific language, i.e. an aptly chosen idiom: “Zakochany bez pamięci”, meaning madly in love, but literally: in love without memory. Italian producers decided to do away with subtlety and choose a much more literal option: “Si mi lasci te cancello”, meaning ‘If you leave me, I erase you’.
In certain countries, film producers turn a title in English into… a different title in English. This is presumably done when producers suspect the language of the original title is too complicated or obscure for the target audience, so they simplify it or replace slang with neutral language. In France, the 2009 American comedy “The Hangover” is called “Very Bad Trip”, possibly because many young French people will be familiar with the term ‘to trip’ (on drugs). Similarly, the 2011 film “No Strings Attached” was rendered in France simply as “Sex friends”, while Adam McKay’s 2010 comedy “The Other Guys” was ‘translated’ as “Very Bad Cops” (I wonder if Trump was somehow involved in that one). The phenomenon can also be seen in Germany: the 2003 action film “Cradle 2 the Grave” was turned into the simplified “Born 2 Die”.
Subtlety bites the dust
The intrinsic subtleties of certain film titles can be a challenge to render in a different language, but some producers fail to even try. This seems to be the case especially in Latin America. The double-entendre in the title of the 2008 romantic comedy “Made of Honor”, in which Patrick Dempsey plays a man acting as the maid of honour with questionably honourable intentions, was brutally lost to Latin American audiences, who were subjected to the blunt and not so subtle: ‘I Want to Steal the Bride’ (“Quiero robarme a la novia”). In a similar vein, in Mexico, the 2013 sentimental take on zombies entitled “Warm Bodies”, about the romantic relationship between a young woman and a zombie who slowly becomes increasingly human again, was rendered as “Mi novio es un zombie” (‘My boyfriend is a zombie’), focusing on the painfully obvious and ignoring the allusion to the film’s key theme: human warmth. Equally lacking in subtlety is the Russian take on the 2012 film “Silver Linings Playbook”, whose protagonist played by Bradley Cooper strives to see a silver lining in everything as he attempts to cope with bipolar disorder and control his violent outbursts. With Jennifer Lawrence portraying a young widow suffering from depression, the film revolves around battling with mental disorders and supporting those who do. In Russia, the producers decided that thrill and sensationalism would sell better, and the movie was called ‘My Boyfriend is a Psycho’ (“Мой парень — псих”).
The above list is far from exhaustive, but some examples show that, when translating film titles, artistic vision is often sacrificed in the name of sales and profit. In many cases, it’s far from impossible to find a linguistically suitable and still presumably profitable equivalent (“It’s raining Falafel”), so perhaps the solution would be to allow translators to be more involved in the decision-making to help reach a middle ground?