Most of us are familiar with the term “lost in translation,” an old adage meaning that a single word or phrase was translated with confusing, humorous or even offensive results. This unfortunate turn of events can happen in any business, including the film industry. And in an ironic twist, the translation title for the movie “Lost in Translation” falls into that same category. The Portuguese translation of this popular movie title turned out to be “Meetings and Failures in Meetings” – not exactly an audience grabber!
Most of us who are not in the movie industry probably don’t give a second thought to translated movie titles until we come across some that are so obviously (and often hysterically) wrong. But for people in the motion picture industry, a poorly translated title is anything but funny. In fact, a badly translated title can mean disaster at the box office.
While it’s true that many movie title translations come from either machine translation — which is often notoriously bad — or from inexperienced translators who don’t understand the cultural nuances of titles, the fact is that translating movie titles isn’t nearly as simple or straightforward as it may sound. It’s not just a matter of translating a title word-by-word – far from it! Creating a movie title translation that is not only true to the storyline of the motion picture but also appealing to the target audience of movie goers in another region of the world requires much more than language skills. It requires a keen appreciation and understanding of the cultures of both countries — the one in which the movie was made, and the one in which it will be marketed and shown in. That’s called “localization,” and it plays a key role in successful movie title translations.
Maybe the best way to demonstrate the importance of accurate movie title translation is to provide a few examples of how it SHOULD NOT be done. These poorly translated titles speak for themselves. Here are some of the hilariously bad translated movie titles from the past several years:
• “Dragnet” – translated in German as “Floppy Coppers Don’t Bite”
• “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – translated in Italian as “If You Leave Me, I Delete You”
• “Annie Hall” – translated in German as “Urban Neurotic”
• “Nixon” – translated in Chinese as “Big Liar”
• “Being John Malkovich” – translated in Japanese as “The Hole of Malkovich”
• “Grease” – translated in Argentina as “Vaseline”
• “Boogie Nights” – translated in Chinese as “His Powerful Device Makes Him Furious”
• “Bad Santa” – translated in Czech as “Santa Is a Pervert”
• “American Pie” – translated in Chinese as “American Virgin Man”
• “The Producers” – translated in Italian as “Please, Do Not Touch the Old Women”
• “As Good as It Gets” – translated in Chinese as “Mr. Cat Poop”
• “Leaving Las Vegas” – translated in Japanese as “I’m Drunk and You’re a Prostitute”
By now, it is no doubt obvious how important movie title translation is. If you need a title translated, don’t rely on machine translation or inexperienced translators. Instead, depend on the services of professional linguists – preferably native speakers – who are not only fluent in the desired languages, but also understand the cultural differences and sensitivities of the target audience. A reputable translation company can match your needs with the skillset of a professional translator who can translate the title so that it remains true to the storyline and intent of the film and has mass appeal to the target movie-goer audience at the same time. That’s the difference between a title that is “lost in translation,” and one that will help to make the movie a box office success in countries around the world.