Chances are, you have already encountered movie lists with a similar catchy, clickbaity title. Buzzfeed particularly comes to mind. It does not stop here though: a quick Google search for bad movie translations gives plenty of results ranging from ‘the hilariously bad’ to ‘the wackiest’, ‘the craziest’ or ‘the sexiest’. I’ll get back to that last part later. For now, let’s please acknowledge the fact that they all follow the same pattern: you take an American (usually) or British movie title and you look at how it was translated in a non-english speaking country. Then you (try to) translate it back into English, chuckle at how weird it sounds and sarcastically point out how much the original meaning was distorted according to inherent cultural traits from the said country. I get it, it is a bit of harmless fun, and I am not going to argue against it, I enjoy those lists as much as the next guy. We rarely get to see a role reversal though. So I thought, how about turning the tables on Americans (I am well aware that it is not always Americans who do that, or rather, I don’t know whether it is always Americans, but the majority of titles translated are from Hollywood, that glistening fantasy-making industry atop a city churning dreams). I have compiled a list of foreign movie titles translated into English. The catch: they are all pretty bad, or mindbogglingly lazy (or so it seems, since I have a theory they might have been ‘lazy’ on purpose. If you stick around long enough, I will share all its details with you). Sorry for the parentheses, I don’t know why I went so overboard with them. There won’t be as much below. (I hope)
Los amantes pasajeros – I’m so excited
This 2013 comedy by Pedro Almodóvar plays like a metaphor for the economic imbroglio Spain was ensnared in after the infamous financial crisis of 2007-2008. Some argue that it might be a tad on the nose, a plane flying in circle with nowhere to land while the passengers indulge in heightened dalliances? Think Wolf of Wall Street as a very light Spanish comedy. Ok, not really. But what about the title? Well, Wikipedia has actually a pretty good sentence that sums up the whole issue with the English version: ” Its original Spanish title is Los amantes pasajeros, which has the double meaning of ‘The fleeting lovers’ and ‘The passenger lovers’ “. Not only is the double meaning completely missing in the English version, but it doesn’t even try to substitute it with another one. Is this even a translation ? I’m not entirely convinced it is, it feels more like a ‘re-branding’. Whoever was in charge of translating the title just watched the first few minutes of the movie and went ‘Duuuude… got it’. I saw the movie a couple of years ago, but I seem to remember that The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited plays during the intro. One thing for sure though is that it’s featured in the original trailer. Can I also draw hasty and broad generalizations from this title translation? I’m looking at you, Cracked.
Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain – Amélie
Ok, remember when I said it felt like some of them were lazy? Exactly. Fabulous something something what is this? A novel? Cut out all the fluff, people are in a rush, they whizz past billboards in a flash, do you expect them to catch all of that? No way. It’s actually pretty easy to make it sound like a stereotypical American thing. Oh it’s just Americans trying to grab your attention, they have that business mindset at all times, they just sell products, and sometimes said products happen to be movies. Of course I don’t believe any of that, and I actually like the ‘translation’ (again, I have qualms calling this a translation, it doesn’t really feel like it, they literally kept one word and discarded the rest, which is pretty ingenious, methinks, but hardly a translation, right?). This title translation was in fact brought to my attention by a British friend, so I know they also went for the same minimalist approach in the UK. For those wondering, a literal translation of the French title would go something like this: The Fabulous Fate of Amélie Poulain. It’s not as catchy as ‘Amélie’, sure, but I still felt like I had to include it on the list, considering it meets the standard requirements for a ‘bad translation’. However, I would say this title provides an interesting example of how to avoid dealing with the usual risks in translation: it can’t be translated back into the source language as a quirky, goofy looking sentence. On the one hand, I’m so excited may have been cause for confusion in Spain ‘¿Estoy excitado? Pero qué traducción más patética ‘. On the other hand, this one likely wasn’t. Oh, a French person or two might have raised an eyebrow upon hearing this translation, but nothing too serious, since I suspect the movie title might have already been shortened down to ‘Amélie Poulain’ in informal conversations.
Las brujas de Zugarramurdi – Witching and Bitching
I think this is the worst one. By the way, you probably noticed a trend in the movies I have covered. They are either Spanish or French. It’s not really on purpose, since I would have liked to include more language variety, but I don’t feel confident enough in other languages to actually gauge the quality of the translation, unless it’s something as horrendous and striking as ‘Witching and Bitching’, but I have yet to find one that bad in, say, Japanese or Chinese. I have looked at a number of movies shot in these two languages and the translations seemed decent to me. Now, what’s to say about this particular one? Errrmm… I get that you could not translate ‘Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi’ as ‘The Witches of Zugarramurdi’ since the town is most likely a cultural reference that would have been lost on an English-speaking audience, but, still, it would have been better than ‘Witching and Bitching’. Come to think of it, I am not sure every Spaniard is familiar with Zugarramurdi (a town rumored to have been inhabited by witches, who, surprise, were burned to the stake in the seventeen century, so… you may say, like a Basque version of Salem? Pretty much) therefore they could have kept the name, if it weren’t for the difficulty it poses marketing-wise. Not only is it awkward to pronounce, but it is also not the kind of thing you’d get right in one try on Google search. That may be why they decided to forgo a more elaborate translation. Too much of a headache. The Basque Witches would have been fine though.
It turned out to be harder than I had thought to find movie titles badly translated into English. A couple of reasons why: a substantial part of the titles I reviewed were good, or so inconsequential and safe that they weren’t worthy to be talked about. A lot of the times the titles were left as is, completely unaltered, like in the case of the French movie ‘La Haine’, which should probably ring a bell if you’re from the English-speaking world. My theory is that the producers attempt to tap into a certain niche market by leaving the title untranslated. Foreign movies are almost like a special kind of delicacy, they are a product on their own, removed from the general public and aimed at those interested in art-house films. I definitely get the impression that some foreign movies are relegated to that category in America. Not every foreign movie follows that same marketing pattern, and some, like the unfortunate ‘Witching and Bitching’ aim for bigger audiences: it has the tacky packaging of a failed attempt at crowd-pleasing, slightly edgy comedy, and it reveals a lot about the kind of content producers (or whoever, publicists, marketers, I’m just trying to be consistent) think will sell. They see a demand for ‘Witching and Bitching’ and not so much for The Basque Witches… what does that tell us? Erm… I don’t really know, because, sure, it would be tempting to say something about the culture of America as a whole, but in my experience, those producers are really out of touch with what the public expects or wants. It’s not so much a reflection of America’s self-centered obsession with pop culture references and corporate logos’ eye-catching simplicity as it is a skewed and lackluster interpretation of an American appetite for foreign movies. These three title translations basically provide a solid start for a slideshow in Marketing Done Wrong 101. What I’m trying to get at is this: it doesn’t make much more sense to infer from a handful of salacious titles that French people are sex-crazed fiends (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I encourage you to check out this Cracked article, if you haven’t already. Please keep in mind that it is all in good fun). Ironically enough, American movies with risqué French translations would imply that the producers were baiting a French market with its expectations of what American movies should sound like, or, to put it more simply, they think the French view America as a promiscuous place. If there’s even a bit of truth in that I find it funny because it turns on its head the American preconception that the French are always playing with their baguettes and croissants, and instead proposes the same idea but with the roles reversed.