What’s in a Title?–How American Movies are Renamed (or Not) Abroad

April 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

"Flight" in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

“Flight” in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

I first noticed American movies released with drastically changed titles when I was in Paris in 1994. [Apologies in advance for the missing accent marks in this post.] The film in question was a 1993 Bruce Willis vehicle called “Striking Distance”–admittedly not the easiest title to translate–whose French title was “Piege en Eaux Troubles.” Why “Plight on Troubled Waters” was presumed a better title, I have no idea. But over the years I’ve noticed that the French almost always retitle American films, even when the original is perfectly translatable. Last year, “The Life of Pi” became “L’Odysee de Pi” in France, while Canada chose “L’histoire de Pi.” (The Canadian version of “Striking Distance,” by the way, was “Sur le Traces de l’Enemies,” proving Quebec a worthy rival to France, translation-wise.)

Surpassing the French and Quebequois for title changes are Spanish-speaking countries. The ever-morphing “Striking Distance” became “Persecucion Mortal” in Spain and “Zona de Impacto” in Argentina. As for “The Life of Pi,” while Spain, unusually, translated it literally, as “La Vida de Pi,” Argentina went with “Una Aventura Extraordinaria,” thus becoming the only country in the world to drop the Pi.

Lately Argentina seems to have emerged as the worldwide champion of creative renaming, according to this list that a friend sent me last Christmas:

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – EL LADO LUMINOSO DE LA VIDA
ZERO DARK THIRTY – LA NOCHE MAS OSCURA
PARENTAL GUIDANCE – S.O.S. UNA FAMILIA EN APUROS
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – LA NINA DEL SUR SALVAJE
QUARTET – RIGOLETTO EN APUROS

While I don’t have a problem with “The Girl of the Savage South,” translating “Zero Dark Thirty” as “The Darkest Night” seems a bit much. After all, the title doesn’t mean anything in English to those who haven’t served in the military, so why not “Zero Oscuro Treinta”? As for “Parental Guidance” and “Quartet,” “apuros”–trouble–is so reductive that seeing the films seems beside the point. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in whatever Buenos Aires office handles this work; no doubt the translators think their titles are an improvement on the originals, though they’re not.

Happily, there’s one country that almost never changes a title: Japan. On my recent trip there, I was amused to see “Flight” rendered in katakana as “Furaito,” even though there is a perfectly good Japanese word for it (hishou). But the Japanese use “furaito” more than hishou; not for nothing do they publish an annual dictionary of “new words,” many of which are foreign-derived. Unlike the French, the Japanese have no fear of language corruption, welcoming foreign words into their language full tilt. Thus “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Life of Pi” were released with their original titles, like almost every American movie in Japan. But even the Japanese have their limits: for “Striking Distance” they used the U.S. working title, “Three Rivers.”

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