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Translating Hollywood blockbusters – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Amidst the glitz and glam of our favourite celebrities descending on Leicester Square this week for the BFI Film Festival, we thought we’d take the opportunity to put film translation in the spotlight.


Aforementioned glitz and glam

While some films, such as Die Hard seemingly need no introduction, the verdict on whether or not to translate film titles is out. Even within the same film franchise. The original Star Wars trilogy, for example, was translated fairly literally in most European languages. And yet, when it came to the prequel trilogy, the title was simply kept in English. This could be down to notoriety, or the title’s bi-syllabic nature: even for a Spaniard, ‘(E)Star Wars’ is less of a mouthful than ‘la guerra de las galaxias’.


Who you gonna call?


Next along the spectrum, we have faithful title translations, which convey the same meaning. Here, we can consider Ghostbusters, translated as ‘ghostcatchers’ in Italian (acchiappafantasmi) or ‘ghosthunters’ in Spanish (cazafantasmas), while the French went slightly more off-piste with ‘SOS fantômes’, meaning ‘SOS ghosts’ (think ‘who you gonna call?’ ‘The emergency ghost services!’).


You’ve lost the plot


This is a prime example of transcreation in action, transposing the plot, rather than literally translating the title itself. It takes a pinch of imagination to get the same message across to potential viewers. While an English-speaking audience might not be enthralled by the prospect of heading to see ‘Very bad trip’, it turns out a French audience just might. Yes, this is the famous translation of the film ‘The Hangover’. While the title might bring a sneer to a British viewer’s face, the use of English and the double-entendre of ‘trip’ could be deemed ‘edgy’ to un Français.


You want hummus with that?

In the same way, film titles have also been tweaked to fit cultural contexts. In a country where beef is considered unorthodox, would you really be tempted by a film that sells itself as ‘meatballs’? That’s exactly how, in Israel, ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ became ‘It’s Raining Falafel’. Kudos, Hebrew translators. If you ever need a pun-partner in crime, you know where to find us.


Thinking outside the box office


While the age-old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ could almost certainly apply here, translating a film title is no mean feat. Titles range from the explanatory to the metaphorical, opening up a myriad of potential pitfalls and opportunities for translators. Take, for instance, Michel Gondry classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Having never seen the film, you could be at a loss to explain its meaning using the title alone. Now take its Italian counterpart: ‘If you leave me, I delete you’ (Se mi lasci ti cancello). Not quite as nuanced, a purist might argue.


But if the purists are struggling with this example, wait until they hear about the (spoiler alert) Chinese film title for The Sixth Sense: ‘He’s a ghost!’…



Thirsty for more film translation? Check out our previous post: Getting it Right: From La La Land to Ad Land.

By Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager

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