Beyond Words - Language Blog

Translation and Film

When watching foreign films, I often wonder whether the translation is, in fact, accurate. Unless a viewer is a native speaker, he is at the mercy of an unknown translator. Inaccurate translation can lead to confusion, or even unintended laughter. In some cases, the trouble starts with a title. For example, in Portugal, Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed film Lost in Translation became Meetings and Failure in Meetings. In China, the French thriller Leon turned into Hit Man Is Not as Cold as He Thought. And then there’s the great American classic Home Alone which the French translated to Mom, I Missed the Plane.

Translation does not have to be literal to be correct, but it does have to attempt to convey the original idea as closely as possible. This of course introduces a good deal of subjectivity: For instance, how well does the title Wings of Desire, from the German Der Himmel Uber Berlin, literally meaning “the sky over Berlin,” capture the main idea of the film?

For another example, the Italian film entitled Uccellacci e Uccellini was officially translated into English as The Hawks and the Sparrows. Although the Italian title actually means “the big birds and the little birds,” the literal translation would sound awkward to an English-speaking audience. While, at first glance, the translation may not appear to pose any serious problems, it could be argued that the title The Hawks and the Sparrows fails to preserve one of the central ideas of the film. By introducing two different species of birds, each of which carries its own representative baggage (the hawk is a predator, while the sparrow is a humble song bird) the translator has added associations for English speaking audiences that the filmmaker may not have intended, or welcomed.

Unique cultural experiences introduce other challenges to the translation process. Some translators circumvent this issue altogether by omitting a portion of the dialogue or title. For example, a Soviet-era Christmas-time film titled Irony of Fate, which can be compared in its popularity and cultural influence to the American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, has a longer title in Russian: Ironiya Sudby, ili S Lyogkim Parom. The second portion of the Russian title is completely omitted from the English translation. S Lyogkim Parom literally translated is “have an easy (or light) steam.” In Russia, a traditional visit to the banya, or public sauna, is a popular activity for symbolic cleansing of both mind and body. Although somewhat archaic, wishing someone “a light steam” after banya is heart-warming and jocular. Certainly, to include the expression in the English title, with the pertinent explanation, would be too confusing and verbose. But without it, the meaning is altered; or rather, ceases to exist.

Film translators must make many difficult decisions. Like all forms of translation, it is an art that must go beyond the literal rendering of words, and attempt to capture, as much as possible, the rich cultural meaning of one language with another.