Trope Talk: Movie Title Translations | April Fool’S Essay
Alright, how do you translate a movie title? "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" Let’s take that as an example Well, you can always translate it word by word But then you hit the word massacre And no matter what synonym you use It’s bringing up connotations that… shouldn’t be there So you fudge the title a bit Ah yes, "Texas Chain Saw Homocidal Maniac" It tells you precisely the genre, the character, and the tone That’s the level of intricacies you have to deal with Taking history, culture And a whole bunch of other language-specific things into consideration Chinese translation is especially annoying Not just because of how different these two languages work But because there are no less than 3 different Chinese speaking film industries Four if you count Singapore Sometimes, these markets can agree on a translation But more often than not… they don’t Yeah, they all mean the same thing Just different wordings But this situation also gives us a treasure trove of titles we can compare and contrast So… let’s do just that! Broadly speaking, there are four ways you can translate a title The first one is "literal translation" Sticking as close to the original meaning as possble This is the simplest and safest method Very little room for misinterpretations Which is why it’s usually used on big budget blockbusters But just because the translation is literal Doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting The 1996 horror movie Scream is translated literally by Mainland and Taiwan Meaning "Screaming in fear" (They are the exact same title, by the way) (Just difference between traditional and simplified Chinese) It’s intentionally vague and kinda silly Just like its English title Alluding to the film’s self-aware tone But Hong Kong went one step further You see, the last character here is a pun, meaning "call" It can mean "A Deadly Call for Help", like a scream But also mean "A Deadly Call On the Phone" Referring to the opening sequence The 2000 French Romantic Comedy Amélie is another example Taiwan’s "Amélie’s Fantasy World" is actually closer to the original French Title “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” (Yeah, I can speak French) But Hong Kong and Mainland translates Amélie’s name phonetically into a pun It sounds like "Angel Amélie" But reads like "Angel Loves Beauty" Which is clever, because in a way The movie is about Amélie learning to love the beauty of the world And bringing happiness to people… like an angel I would give it a chef kiss But this movie is French, not Italian That said, literal translation is safe but not perfect For one thing, you have to choose your words carefully Mainland China translates the Fast and Furious series as "Speed and Passion" Sounds about right But the word they choose for passion has a slight sexual connotation these days It sounds kinda weird and dirty to a Chinese ear I guess that’s why there are so many homoerotic fanfics bbout the two protagonists Now that I think about it, maybe it’s intentional…? And then sometimes, a title just flat out can’t be translated Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one of those The "Pulp" in "Pulp Fiction" came from the type of paper used for cheap novels These novels usually feature sex, drugs, guns and all sort of tropes It’s a term that only really makes sense in English Mainland translated it as "Low-Brow Novel" The surface-level meaning is preserved, but the context is pretty much entirely lost Personally, I think Hong Kong’s "Dangerous Personnel" best captures the vibe And that leads to our second way of translating a title: reinterpretation Instead of translating from the English title This is when you come up with your own title by interpreting the plot It’s usually a good way to deal with titles that can’t be easily translated The aforementioned "Dangerous Personnel" is a good example of this Christopher Nolan’s Inception is another example It’s about a bunch of thieves running around people’s dream where reality is distorted The word "Inception" sounds cool and thrilling and imposing and cerebral An there isn’t an equivalent word in Chinese Taiwan attempted a literal translation "Full-Scale Initiation" Which is close… but not quite there That’s why Mainland and Hong Kong came up with their own titles Mainland calls it "Dream Theft Dimension" Which I think is absolutely amazing Hong Kong’s "Dimensional Infiltration" gives it a bit more of a spy thriller edge Matrix is another one with no equivalent words in Chinese At least nothing as sci-fi and cool sounding … It sounds nerdy as heck So instead, Taiwan and Mainland both translate it as the awesome sounding "Empire of Hackers" Capturing the scale and the coolness factor Hong Kong’s "22nd Century Killer Network" is… less cool (Yeah I don’t know why they call it that) Hong Kong’s title for The Truman Show is great, though The title comes from a 24/7 reality show about the main character Truman Unknowingly living in a fabricated reality Mainland and Taiwan went with the relatively safe "Truman’s World" Hong Kong went with "Reality Show" But wait! it’s not reality! Exactly! In fact, going word by word, the title literally means "A show featuring real humans" And the movie is about Truman A "True Man" And how his humanity breaks him out of a fake TV reality Spike Jonze indie sci-fi romance film, Her, talks about a geek Falling in love with an AI who sounds like Scarlet Johansson Mainland just has a direct translation Hong Kong is a bit more poetic But Taiwan completely reinterprets the title Calling it "Cloud-based Lover" Which not only hints at the technology behind the AI But also the distance between the two characters And her intangibility That’s freaking awesome! Okay, one more.
Because this is fun Inglourious Basterds Tarantino’s Nazisploitation film about a group of Jewish soldiers hunting nazis for sport While Mainland and Taiwan gave a pretty straight-forward translation Hong Kong just GETS Tarantino I swear I’m not making this up "Demon Hitler" "Versus Homicidal Maniacs" It’s ridiculous until you realize That’s exactly the kind of movie Tarantino makes Nazisploitation! Like She Wolf of the SS, just done well and tasteful I guess Hong Kong and Tarantino just love each other Did you know Mighty Peking Man was distributed by Tarantino in the West? Now, reinterpretation may sound great But it does have at least 2 potential pitfalls The first one is… Well, sometimes, it doesn’t age well The Mission Impossible series was called "Spies on a Disk" in Mainland China Referring to the list of spy names mcguffin in the first movie But then the series continues without that thing ever showing up again And the title just completely loses all meaning The Terminator is another example Instead of using the villain’s name Hong Kong titled it after the hero’s identity Kyle Reese is a warrior, and he is from the future But then the sequels put more emphasis on the Terminators And Kyle Reese is almost entirely forgotten The second translation pitfall is straight-up misinterpretations This is when the translator doesn’t get the movie Manchester by the Sea is a drama about a man confronting his own path after his brother’s death Hong Kong translates it as "Love Ties to the Seaside Town" But… it’s not a love story, and it doesn’t have that much to do with love It puts the movie in a genre it doesn’t belong Contact is another one It’s about an astronomer trying to contact alien life While also dealing with her past trauma So the Taiwanese title "Contact the Future" Is kinda the polar opposite of what the astronomer is doing She isn’t really reaching to the future as much as she’s freeing herself from the past If you are planning on reinterpreting the movie title You better be sure you have a firm understanding of the movie Onto the third way of translating: poetic translation This is when you incorporate cultural context from the Chinese language into your translation Kubrick’s Lolita is a good example of this A movie about a man’s inappropriate obsession with an underage girl The original book has a phonetically translated title in all three regions But when the movie got released Hong Kong and Taiwan got a bit… cheeky with the title It reads "A Pear Tree Crushing a Begonia" Which came from a famous poem written to mock old men who marry young women It’s beautiful on the surface But a "big yikes" when you think about it So, a perfect fit for this movie Another similar example would be "Knives Out" A murder mystery filled with tension Both Mainland and Taiwan chose existing idioms for their title Mainland chose "Sharp Blade Unsheathed" Meaning tension is high, people are one step away from killing each other Taiwan chose "Blades Curved And Roads Turned" Meaning the story has taken an unexpected turn Both titles reference the knives motif But also gives additional context through cultural references Now, you don’t always have to be classy, either Sharknado- Yes, Sharknado, a movie about sharks flying in a tornado Has one of the most poetic and funny Chinese titles I’ve ever seen In Chinese, tornado is called "Dragon twisting wind" Naturally, mainland and Hong Kong replaced one of the words with shark And it works But Taiwan hilariously referenced a classic pop song In which the lyrics describe a romantic image of the desert sands dancing in the wind And since the words "sand" and "shark" are homonyms… Well, now a hilarious mental image is stuck in your head Genius.
Of course, like other methods Poetic translations can go wrong Disney’s Coco is a movie about a kid traveling the world of the dead , trying to find his musical idol Mainland’s "Dream Chase Odyssey", good translation Taiwan’s "Coco’s Nightclub"… not so much Okay, "nightclub" is a Taiwanese euphemism for "cemetery" So, it KINDA cleverly alludes to the musical theme, the theme of death, and the dazzling lights But all that subtext is useless When the surface level text is more or less entirely out of whack This is the definition of trying way too hard Another seemingly beautiful one is Slumdog Millionaire A movie about a young man going on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" And through the show, he reconnects with his childhood love Hong Kong gave it a very poetic title "One Million And One Nights" It references the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game show It’s also a metaphor for the length of time the main character waited to meet his love again It also feels like a fairytale Because it references the book "One Thousand and One Night" Which… It’s an Arabian book This movie is set in INDIA! God damn it, Hong Kong… Last, and also maybe the least exciting way There is the marketing translation This is when a title is fudged to make the movie more marketable A basic example would be 1994’s "Speed" A movie about a bus that explodes if it drives too slow With a generic-sounding title like Speed Hong Kong added a word to signal its genre: "Speed of Life and Death" And since Chinese is such a compact language You can usually get away with more complicated titles Taiwan is especially fond of this types of marketing translation Speed becomes "Police Protector" Top Gun becomes "Warrior Protector" And John Wick becomes "Mission to Protect" The most infamous example is probably "Shawshank Redemption" To which Taiwan gave it a nonsensical translation of… (And I did not make this up) "Excitement 1995" Okay, let me explain When Shawshank first came out in the US, it was a box office bomb And with a nondescript title like that, I can see why So, the Taiwanese distributor marketed it as A spiritual successor to the 1973 movie "The Sting" Which was called "Excitement" in Taiwan "Excitment" "Excitment 1995" And, as far as I know, the strategy worked! It made box office record in Taiwan So you may laugh at this, but Taiwan got it to work! This strategy is used for many Arnold movies, too They are marketed as the "Demon" series in Taiwan "Demon Terminator" "Demon Commando" "Demon Emperor: True Lies" "Demon Jr." It’s funny, but it works Of course, it’s not a exclusively a Taiwanese thing A lot of the Pixar movies are also like this in Mainland Toys Mobilized Undersea Mobilized Racing Cars Mobilized Superheros Mobilized Hong Kong has a similar shtick going on, too By now, you can already see the major problem with this method It’s mind-numbingly boring Se7en, a detective thriller about a serial murderer in the theme of the seven deadly sins is called "Flash Point Warrant" It conveys none of the mysteries and style of the movie It sounds more like Donnie Yen is about to kick some ass Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is called "Tribulations of the Undying" in Mainland A poetic way to describe the main character A man who has above average physique that makes him a real-life superhero Taiwan just calls it… "Thrilling"…
I have no idea why! So, that’s four ways of translating a movie title into another language Let’s see… There’s "the direct translation" The safe but not always possible option "Reinterpretation" A good option to bring in some personality But you have to make sure you understand the film well enough "The poetic translation" Bringing in cultural references to provide additional context And "the marketing translation" Boring, but it works Of course, these options are not mutually exclusive And it’s generally ideal if you can achieve more than one at a time But like all art forms, there is no definitive way to do it right That’s also what makes this topic so much fun to look into Have you paid attention to any movie titles lately? Take a look next time You might be surprised by the amount of thought that goes into it So… Yeah.