Movie title translations come in all shapes, sizes and writing systems. And they work… sometimes.
Before Annie Hall was finished, Woody Allen used the working titles Anhedonia and It Had to be Jew (thank you for changing that one, Mr. Allen).
But when it hit German theaters, they opted out of the simple title. Instead of the character name, they called the film Der Stadtneurotiker (The Urban-Neurotic). It’s a good title, but why not leave it as Annie Hall?
Similarly, The Royal Tenenbaums reached Czech audiences, for whatever reason, as Taková zvlástní rodinka (Such a Special Family). For more obvious reasons, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs translated into Hebrew as Rain of Falafel, and in Turkey as Raining Kofte.
And in Spanish, The Dark Knight is The Night Knight. But to be fair, it sounds pretty cool in Spanish: El Caballero de la Noche.
Movie title translations are a significant intersection of the film and translation industries, and translating movie and TV titles properly is a complex process. Translators and localizers must take into account a variety of conditions to determine how to present a film title to foreign language audiences.
Malay localizers, for example, sanitized Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to become Austin Powers: The Spy Who Behaved Very Nicely Around Me. That’s on account of Malaysia’s strict profanity laws and conservative sexual standards.
It’s considerate to the audience and the Malay government, but at the expense of the film’s essence. Movie title translations don’t always have cut and dry solutions.
Some movie title translations range from the hilariously bad to the downright unintelligible. Uproarious movie title translations of major Hollywood features are the hallmark of pirate DVDs all over the developing world, available from any bootlegger you come across.
How did it get to be this way? For many studios and filmmakers, localization is an afterthought. They don’t budget for, or can’t be bothered with, the talent it takes to accurately deliver their film’s true spirit to foreign language audiences. This is a mistake you don’t want to make.
How Movie Title Translations Can Impact the Film’s Reception
Many movie title translations come out of inexpensive translation mills. Cheap movie title translations often rely on low paid translators using machine translation.
These translations completely neglect the intricacies of cultural norms. Unfortunately, because the title informs an audience’s decision to watch your film, you can lose whole markets this way.
Even better-intentioned localization can miss the mark and cost you dearly. It doesn’t matter how well your film is written, shot and subtitled if nobody wants to watch a movie about a spy who is extra nice.
It’s a delicate thing to successfully execute movie title translations. It takes more than just bilingualism. Cultural insight, political awareness, and even a certain poetic inspiration can play a key role in whether movie title translations sink or sail.
For instance, Bong Joonho’s 2006 monster movie was simply called 괴물 (Monster) in its native Korean. But translators lost the simplicity and impact of this title with the more generic and meaningless English name, The Host.
This may have been partly because the title Monster was taken three years before by an award winning American movie starring Charlize Theron. But it affected the US release of this otherwise critically well-regarded Korean creature feature.
The Host, whose budget was just under $11 million, only grossed about $2.2 million in the States, and less than a quarter million in the UK. Nevertheless, the movie won 25 international film awards and received nominations for 25 more by festivals and academies worldwide.
How much more successful could The Host have been in America and the UK with better movie title translations? Fortunately for the producers, the film’s domestic release in South Korea was strong enough to make up for its disappointing performance abroad.
Cultural Cues in Movie Titles
As another example, Airplane! took its name as a spoof on the mediocre 70s disaster flick Airport. The latter launched the disaster sub-genre in the States, but who would get the reference overseas? Abroad, Airplane! needed a new name.
German distributors localized it as a mouthful: Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug (The Unbelievable Trip in a Crazy Airplane), which might describe silliness but doesn’t sound especially silly itself. Some of the essence of Airplane! is already lost in the movie title translations.
On the other hand, the TV series Murder, She Wrote aired in Italy under the title La Signora in Giallo (The Lady in Yellow). Why such a strange, non literal translation? The title is a nod to the giallo subgenre of Italian slasher movies.
These, in turn, came out of a tradition of cheap pulp fiction novels published with yellow (giallo) covers. While the translated title might sound meaningless to Americans, it strikes relevant cultural notes in Italy, connecting the series to a local tradition of crime fiction and macabre thrillers.
Competent translators and know that literal movie title translations are not always the most effective at localizing your film.
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Do You Need Movie Title Translations?
Sometimes movie title translations are unnecessary, as with the 1991 French film La Belle Noiseuse. English speaking audiences are largely acquainted with belle as the French word for ‘beautiful,’ and it’s not hard to make the mental leap from noiseuse to ‘nuisance.’
For American markets, the sound of French has overtones of artfulness and sensuality, which in this case works with the film’s subject. The original title draws the viewer in.
Like many movie titles, it has a double meaning, which movie title translations are notorious for losing. The ‘beautiful nuisance’ is the painter’s muse, a young woman who he finds fetching and also maddening. But the real belle noiseuse is the torture and exaltation of the creative process–the blank canvas begging to be midwife to the artist’s masterpiece, and the frustration of repeated attempts at capturing his subject.
The title gains still another layer when you apply it to the filmmaking process itself: a film about a painting about a muse, all beautiful nuisances.
Can movie title translations capture such an essence? How do you localize the title in a way that carries those layers? The Polish release of La Belle Noiseuse was called Piekna zlosnica, translating to The Beautiful Shrew.
It carries only the first, most obvious meaning of the title. And it introduces misogynistic overtones, at least when back translated into English. Sometimes no translation is better than a bad attempt.
Matching Asian Titles With European Languages, and Vise Versa
Movie title translations between European languages, however, are a walk in the park compared to matching them to Asian languages. Wacky Chinese movie title translations are a favorite target of internet ridicule. But examples are far too numerous and unverifiable to list here
But Chinese meanings are just as difficult to nail in English. Wong Kar Wai’s 春光乍洩 (perhaps best translated as Exposed Skin Together) reached anglophone audiences as Happy Together, a strange choice for a movie about a couple that fights a lot.
Many releases of English language films in East Asia bypass movie title translations altogether. Instead, they use Konglish, Chinglish, or Japanglish to approximate the sound of the English title (e.g. 프로메테우스 = Peu-ro-meh-teh-oo-seu = Prometheus in Konglish). This maintains the original title, but often fails to carry its meaning to non-English speaking audiences in Asia.
The makers of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon intelligently foresaw the dilemmas surrounding movie title translations, and planned to localize from the beginning. They chose a title that worked for both Chinese and English audiences, their two biggest markets. The title could translate back and forth without losing value.
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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a literal translation of part of a Chinese saying about places where hidden masters are all around–behind a rock, a tiger may be crouching; the root, a hidden dragon.
Two of the film’s main characters have names that end with 龍 (‘dragon’) and 虎 (‘tiger’)–a detail that English audiences would miss out on. But by design, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pre-planned the movie title translations to fit two audiences, not just one.
On rare occasions, even east Asian titles can match up word for word with their English movie title translations. This was the case with Kim Kiduk’s meditative 2003 sonnet 봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄, released in the States as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. All the translators added was a bit of punctuation:
If only all movie title translations were so simple!
When Lost in Translation Really Gets Lost… in Translation
Irony of ironies: not all translations of Lost in Translation hit the mark. Like La Belle Noiseuse, the title of Sophia Coppola’s 2003 Indy hit carries thematic resonance.
It’s a story about two lost people in a world they don’t understand, who can only seem to communicate with each other. But overseas movie title translations sometimes lost (or changed) the meaning of Lost in Translation:
- Portugal: O Amor É um Lugar Estranho (Love is a Strange Place)
- Brazil: Encontros e Desencontros (Encounters and Disencounters)
- Latin America: Perdidos en Tokio (Lost in Tokyo)
- Canada: Traduction infidèle (Unfaithful Translation)
- Hungary: Elveszett jelentés (Lost Meaning)
- Poland: Miedzy slowami (Between Words)
- Russia: Трудности перевода (Translation Difficulties)
- Turkey: Bir konusabilse… (One can talk…)
Some of these movie title translations, though different, are quite thoughtful. The Canadian title, Traduction infidèle, hints at a romance blossoming between two married people. The Hungarian Lost Meaning suggests not only the original title, but that the characters are searching for their purpose.
This elegance goes out the window with Perdidos en Tokio, the release title for Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. Although comparable to the original title in the more obvious sense, Lost in Tokyo loses in translation what Lost in Translation expresses.
Crafting Your Movie Title Translations With Care
Your film is your baby. And the work doesn’t stop when it hits the festival circuits. If you strike a chord with your native language audiences, then go the extra mile when it’s time to deliver to foreign markets.
Don’t make the greedy studio mistake of trying to pay a penny a word for your movie title translations. The results will disappoint, and will likely cost you the attention of wide swaths of foreign language audiences.
You can learn a lot from the above examples about how to and how not to approach movie title translations. Do yourself and your audiences a favor and translate your movie titles thoughtfully, elegantly, and professionally.
Movie title translations may seem simple to the layperson, but filmmakers and translators know full well that every word carries meaning, weight and imagery. A good title has impact and local cultural relevance. And that’s what makes people decide to see your film in the first place.
What are some of the worst movie title translations you’ve ever heard? Let us know in the comments below!