Translating movie titles is a fine art. What works in one language may stumble in another, particularly if it's based on an idiom. The reference to a David Bowie lyric in the title of Serious Moonlight, a recent film in which Meg Ryan binds Timothy Hutton with duct tape, played in French under the title A Captivating Love.
In a 1998 article in The Asian Wall Street Journal, Hal Lipper examined the skill of translating English titles into Cantonese or Mandarin for the Chinese market. Léon The Professional, in which a hit man protects a newly orphaned girl, became The Hit Man Is Not as Cold as He Thought. The English Patient became Don't Ask Me Who I Am. Boogie Nights, which centred on its well-endowed hero, got a title variously translated as One Erection Makes Him Famous and His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous.
Caution is needed, since many alleged translations turn out to be fakes dreamed up by Internet comedians. Ignore claims that The Matrix is known in French as Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses. The French title is, in fact, Matrix. Titles often survive intact: Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Moulin Rouge, Casablanca. Pulp Fiction is Fiction pulpeuse. Cool Hand Luke is Luke la main froide. The Mike Myers comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer was translated word for word, with the exception that "so" became " eh oui!"
The adjustment works in both directions. The Quebec film La Grande Séduction, about a village's attempt to trick a doctor into opening up a practice there, was known more explicitly in English as Seducing Doctor Lewis. But for the sake of convenience, I'll concentrate here on French titles of English movies. The translations back to English are mostly literal.
Sometimes the translator favours a rhyme. The Coen brothers' Burn After Reading becomes Lire et détruire ( Read and Destroy). Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla becomes Rock et escrocs ( Rock and Con Artists). His film Snatch becomes Tu braques ou tu raques ( You Hold Up or You Pay Up). Sometimes the French title aims for clarity. The Beatles film A Hard Day's Night becomes Four Boys in the Wind. Spaceballs, Mel Brooks's spoof of Star Wars, becomes The Crazy History of Space. Silent Running, in which a botanist (Bruce Dern) sits on a space freighter with two robots for company, becomes Alone in Space. Dirty Harry loses his dirtiness; he's just Inspector Harry. The Blind Side is The Dawning of a Champion. Jaws is The Teeth from the Sea.
Word play is a challenge. The pun in Shaun of the Dead, playing off the George Romero zombie film Dawn of the Dead, doesn't travel well, so the French title is Shaun and the Zombies. The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which spindly Jack Skellington seeks to import the spirit of Christmas into Halloween, becomes The Strange Christmas of Mr. Jack.
Sometimes the translator reaches for greater intensity. Body Heat becomes Body Fever. My Sister's Keeper, about a girl who resents being used to keep her sister alive, is My Life for Yours. Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze's spirit hangs around lost love Demi Moore, gets a more romantic moniker: My Phantom of Love. Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke negotiating satanic rituals, becomes At the Doors of Hell. Spring Breakdown becomes Spring Vacations from Hell.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, with Macaulay Culkin as the boy who keeps being left behind by his parents, must surely be in the running for the longest French title: Mom, I Missed the Plane Again and I'm Lost in New York. That's getting close to those bogus Hong Kong titles dreamed up by the aforementioned comedians, in which The Wizard of Oz becomes something like Help, A Tornado Blew Me Into a Technicolor World With a Witch Who Covets My Dog. Theatres might have trouble squeezing the words onto the marquee, but you'd have to award points for truth in advertising.
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