Movie titles are important for marketing, and the correct translation of a movie title, taking into account cultural sensitivity, contributes to making that movie a success. It is more surprising, therefore, that some English-language titles are being translated in such a way that leads to all sorts of problems, and at best, may sound very funny and cause confusion. Below, I will present some of those titles, focusing on those titles translated for the benefit of Russian, French and Spanish-speaking audiences.
- Silver Linings Playbook – Russian Translation: Мой парень – псих – literal meaning: My boyfriend – a loony.
This has to be one of the most ridiculous title translations. There is nothing subtle about the Russian title of this film, and the title suggests a cheap comedy flick, rather than a more sophisticated movie which is refreshing, layered and solidly acted.
2. Limitless – Russian Translation: Области тьмы – literal meaning: Zones of darkness.
Not much thought was spent considering this title translation. “The Dark Fields“, the US film’s working title and the original title of the book the film is based upon, was translated, but it still did not make a lot of sense. The title emphasis should have been on the super-powers of the hero, but, instead, the title suggests this is either some UFO-abduction or a mysterious crop circles’ story.
3. Blade Runner – Russian Translation: Бегущий по лезвию – literal meaning: He who runs [or runner] on a blade.
This is of those literal title translations, which I personally find problematic. Not only the translation is clumsier and sounds funnier than the original, but, arguably, it also does not make that much sense. Blade Runner is a job title (as in Blade Runner unit name), and, thus, should not be literally translated as it is a name. Moreover, considering the original taking of this title by Fancher from Burroughs/Nourse, the concept is the one involving people running away with the (stolen) blades, and not running on the blades. In fact, the story of “Blade Runner” has to do with the “smuggling” of androids. Many countries in the world wisely did not translate the original “Blade Runner” title at all, leaving it as just “Blade Runner“, written either in Latin letter or, rarer, in their own alphabet.
4. The Adjustment Bureau – Russian Translation: Меняющие реальность – literal meaning: Those who change reality.
“The Adjustment Bureau” sounds not only more sophisticated than the Russian translation, but it also reflects the plot more accurately as the concept behind the film is people who adjust – meaning, change slightly, certain circumstances so that individual life can also be changed. The Russian translation of this title also paid little respect to the original title by Philip K. Dick who called his short story “Adjustment Team“. Even “The Agents of Destiny“, a title adopted in many countries, sounds more accurate and better.
5. Top Gun – Russian Translation: Лучший стрелок – literal meaning: The best shooter.
Even though most people find this translation as accurate, I have always viewed the translation as very problematic. First of all, one of the meanings of the verb “to gun” is to make something move faster, rather than to literally shoot, as in the wording “to gun an engine or a vehicle”. Seeing the title in this light, the reference to shooting is a bit misleading and inaccurate in the Russian translation because the pilots in the film emphasise speed when referring to their mastery of planes, rather than their ability to deploy air weaponry. Secondly, the word “guns” may be a slang word for “biceps”, meaning strength, also making the Russian translation awkward. Thirdly, film “Top Gun” (1986) was based on an article titled “Top Guns” written by Ehud Yonay in 1983. The article was about fighter pilots at Top Gun, the name of an elite fighter weapons school the pilots attended. This means that the title should not have been translated at all as it is a name, and a top gun is simply the name of a man who attends a top pilot school.
1. Jaws – French Translation: Les Dents de la Mer – literal meaning: The teeth of the sea .
The French title “Les Dents de la Mer” may have some poetic/symbolic effect, but it is nowhere near producing the dramatic effect of the title “Jaws“. The French title may also be a play on words – the mother’s teeth, but the fact remains that the title does not stand out at all.
2. No Strings Attached – French Translation: Sex friends.
Many French translations of American movie titles refer to sex, sexuality and erotica (sex sells, right?), but this is one of those distasteful translations that should make anyone cringe. The title hints at some cheap purely adult content movie, rather than a comedy which stars such well-known names as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. Perhaps, by anglicising the title, the producers thought they would make the title less direct and more sophisticated and interesting. Well, they did not succeed.
3. Ghost – French Translation: Mon Fantôme d’Amour – literal meaning: My ghost of love.
If there are no room for sex in the title, than love should be present, as in this case. The title “Ghost” is a straightforward title, but one would have also thought it does not encompass the passionate relationship between the main characters in the movie, hence the need for the My Ghost of Love title. The result is the title which befits a cheap, second-rate romantic novel, rather than a moving film and a winner of two Academy Awards.
4. Home Alone – French Translation: Maman, J’ai raté l’avion! – literal meaning: Mom, I missed the flight!
If French film titles do not refer to sex or love, then they apparently like asking questions or shouting! The French title for the US movie “Home Alone” is bewildering. “Home Alone” is primarily a fun comedy, but it is also a highly entertaining and enjoyable film. The French title points to something mediocre and trashy. In the second film, the main character does not really miss the flight, but boards another plane. However, the title reads “Maman, J’ai encore raté l’avion!” – “Mom, I missed the flight again!”
5. The Horse Whisperer – French Translation: L’Homme qui murmurait a l’oreille des chevaux – literal meaning: The man who whispered into the ears of horses.
The French title is a big mouthful, but the point is that there is no need for such a long title at all. If one whispers to horses, obviously horses’ ears are the ones picking up the sound, and, so, why even stress the fact that one whispers into the ears of horses? Again, top marks for eloquence and zero for sense.
1. Grease – Spanish Translation: Vaselina – literal meaning: Vaseline/grease.
“Grease is the word“, so why then translate it literally, and spoil all the fun? On a serious note, translating the title literally here is simply not a very clever thing to do. Greasers was a word denoting a youth subculture of the 1950s consisting of working class teenagers in the US, who listened to rock-n-roll, and, yes, applied some grease on their hair (for it to be slick). The origin of the word may have started with its designation of poor workers or mechanics who worked with cars and used oil. The original “Grease” screenplay is said to contain many references to car repairs and car racing, and hence it was about “greasers” (mechanics). Obviously, being the name of a subculture, it probably should not have been literally translated at all. Also, the word “vaselina” generally refers only to an oily substance used for hair, and not car works or the world of machines, hence the title translation here is also a bit erroneous (it does not refer to the film’s preoccupation with cars, motorcycles and motor activities).
2. 101 Dalmations – Spanish Translation: La Noche de las Narices Frias – literal meaning: The night of the cold noses.
This is a very cute title, but maybe it is too cute for its own good? It is not immediately capturing and does not really say what the film is all about. Although it is intriguing enough, it can also be misleading.
3. Home Alone – Spanish Translation: Mi Pobre Angelito – literal meaning: My poor little angel.
This is another cute title of the famous American comedy, which wants to play with contrasts and expectations. The boy in “Home Alone” looks innocent and sweet enough, but he proves neither as he confronts two greedy bandits. Still, the title is too corny, and is unlikely to attract millions to cinemas. A sarcastic misfire.
4. Thelma & Louise – Spanish Translation: Un Final Inesperado (Venezuela) – literal meaning: An unexpected ending.
There will be no surprises when the Spanish-speaking audience gets to the emotional ending of Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louisa“, because they would know not to expect what they could be expecting. All reason fails to explain the misfortune which is the title here – “Un Final Inesperado“. It robs the main characters of their identities, but it also almost reveals the “twist” in the end.
5. Die Hard – Spanish Translation: Jungla de Cristal – literal meaning: The glass jungle.
This film title has been notoriously hard to translate to other languages, and a number of countries faced trouble. Seeing the situation in this light, “Jungla de Cristal” is not such a bad title as the translation for “Die Hard“. The Spanish title even has some sense underneath since it points to fragility, while also emphasising hardship and competitiveness of the environment, etc. However, this reasoning is more befitting a PhD thesis, and the right title is the one which simply tries to characterise the character in acute terms. For example, the Russian translation of the movie “Die Hard” is “Крепкий орешек“, meaning “a tough nut” [to crack]. This may sound silly, but it is an effective title, and makes perfect sense for a Russian-speaker as this Russian term defines a person who is strong, (will not surrender/change his belief), and who may be very hard to kill.