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The creativity backstage: Brilliant translations of film titles that differ from the originals

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Having two hands does not make you a pianist and knowing two languages does not make you a translator. But to be a translator, you need to know two languages, don’t you? Well, yes and no. You also need to be creative and know the field you are working in (among others).


We all know that Spanish guy spending his Erasmus year in Lyon who translates some texts from English into French (a risky business, for sure) for a company based in Logroño (Spain), the CEO of which is his cousin’s wife.


We all have that uncle who’s always asking why you need to spend three to six years studying at university when there’s Google Translate. Your uncle’s always sharing on his social media news items about how some brand-new Korean headsets might change the way we travel and communicate because they’ll automatically translate (not interpret) everything you say into 468 different languages.


And what about that friend bragging about his new car who, while trying to figure out how everything works, asks you to translate “air-cooled twin engine with high torque” into Italian for him: “Well, you’re an expert in technical translation, aren’t you?” “Aren’t you supposed to know all this jargon?” (Well, yes, but I might need a dictionary, otherwise I wouldn’t be a freelance translator, but a Scrabble champion.) We’ve all been there.


Movie Clapboard

The above are all typical, common examples of how people who might not know what it takes to be a linguist see translation. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at another example: The friend who goes to the cinema and says “Well, the translation of the film title was terrible.” And it’s not only your friend, it seems, but also some journalists, who seem to find some of the most brilliant translations terrible, just because the Spanish text (in this case) does not spit out the original title word for word. Apart from making me furious, the article I’m referring to was what gave me the idea for this blog, to show yet another linguistic lesson we can learn from cinema.


Today, we’re going to take a look at some examples that illustrate why people might think a translation bad when actually it is a good (and in some cases, brilliant) transcreation. I know that quite often it is the producer/film studio who/that decides on the film title, and not a translator, but this blog post might provide a good introduction to why a world without prejudice against non-literal translations feels like heaven to any linguist.


Spanish poster of Silver Linings Playbook

The first example we’re going to look at is the film title “Silver Linings Playbook”, translated into Spanish as “El lado bueno de las cosas” (The good side of things). The film recounts the story of a man who, after having lived for months in a mental health institution, moves back to his parents’ and is desperate to reconcile with his ex-wife. A mix of drama, family and sensitive topics such as mental health. A good mix of emotions and life experiences. “El lado bueno de las cosas” conveys the idea of finding happiness in adversity and focusing on all the good things life has to offer, despite everything. Moreover, “silver lining” is an expression that refers to an advantage that comes from an unpleasant situation, so the Spanish translation plays on this message beautifully. Had it been translated in line with the criteria of the article, the title would have been something like “El libro de tácticas del revestimiento de plata”, which sounds more like a solar panel instruction manual. Someone with a good knowledge of English, but little knowledge of typical expressions and idioms and without the ability to convey a message would not have come up with such a good title.


Another example the article cites is the translation of the acclaimed film “Jaws”, which in Spanish was translated as “Tiburón” (shark). Well, the film is about a shark, the poster includes a big shark and the word “tiburón” appeals to thrill-seekers. To be honest, if the title had been translated as “Mandíbulas”, viewers would have thought the movie was all about a young doctor who dreams of opening a dental practice in Galveston, Texas.


A further example that caught my attention in the article was “The Parent Trap”, whose translation into Spanish gave rise to one of the most iconic titles of the last century: “Tú a Londres y yo a California”. Had it been literally translated, it would have given the impression that this was a horror movie, in which two evil parents try to kidnap children. Or the other way round, who knows. Thinking out of the box and coming up with such a title (I’m moving to London, you’re moving to California) better conveys the idea of the movie’s plot: two identical 11-year-old twin sisters who, separated as babies, meet each other by chance and conspire to get their divorced parents back together (well, this could also be interpreted as a trap…).


French Poster of To Die For

There are many other examples of brilliant free translations of film titles that dismantle any arguments against being creative, including the below: The French translation of “To Die For” – a dark comedy drama from the ‘90s, starring Nicole Kidman – is “Prête à Tout” (Ready to do anything). The film is about a woman who is obsessed with appearing on TV and becoming famous, and who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal (we won’t say any more, to avoid any spoilers, but there might be some murders). In this case, the translation slightly differs from the original for a good reason: While with “prête à tout” you lose the idea of death and being irresistible, the French version conveys the idea of the main character’s excessive ambition. Different titles, different expressions but similar feelings of obsession and ambition.


A free translation is not always a bad translation: Be it for subtitling, the visual adaptation of animation movies or the title on a poster, we need to take into account the relevant context and cultural references and, of course, praise the job of the people behind each translated piece. We hope that this blog post serves as some food for thought, and that perhaps next time an article about translation is published, it does not diminish our job, rather tries to see translation as a whole cultural message adapted to a specific market, and not just as a series of words spit out from one language into another.


Do you think creativity has its limits in our industry? Do you have any examples of translated book or film titles? Feel free to comment!


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