The title of a film is its primary selling point. The cast, director and plot are key to longer-term box office success, but it’s usually the title of a film that’s meant to attract viewers.
That’s why translating a film title is a complex task, and one that requires the translator’s utmost attention, who is often influenced by a number of factors. Here is a list of film titles that have been translated into Italian, with some questionable results, to say the least.
What’s involved in film title translation?
Film titles often contain references to the culture of origin or to the country in which the film is set. Often, these references are not understood by target audiences and an alternative solution needs to be found. Examples include references to idioms, puns that work well in one language and not in another, references to book titles and songs, and so on.
In fact, the history of cinema itself can occasionally prevent film titles from being translated accurately. The Western film Rio Grande is a prime example. For some reason, (and we’re not entirely sure why), the title was translated into Rio Bravo for Italian audiences. The problem arose a few years later, when a film called Rio Bravo was released in the USA. The Italian translators had to come up with a way to differentiate between the newly released film and the previous one, (effectively) opting to completely rewrite the title. The film was a huge success in Italy and is now known by its translated title Un dollaro d’onore (A Dollar of Honour).
The worst film title translations of all time
Although Un dollaro d’onore worked well, other film title translations have not had quite the same success. One film in particular, despite coming out fairly recently, is a prime example of film title translation gone wrong. Any idea what it might be?
His Girl Friday – La signora del venerdì
This 1940s film stars Cary Grant as the male lead and its title is a reference to a typical English language expression, which in itself is a reference to the novel Robinson Crusoe. In that novel, in fact, the protagonist names a man ‘Friday’ (because they meet on a Friday), who soon becomes a faithful friend and reliable companion.
In English “Man Friday” is now used to describe a loyal aid, worthy of the utmost trust. The title His Girl Friday therefore, literally means “his trusted woman.” Given that the meaning of the original title would be a bit of a stretch for Italian audiences, and without managing to come up with a decent alternative, the translators settled on La signora del venerdì (lit. The Lady of Friday), which completely misses the point.
Walk the Line – Quando l’amore brucia l’anima
This film is about Johnny Cash and the American title pays tribute to one of his most famous songs. A translation that reproduced the meaning of the song title wouldn’t do, so the translators opted for the poignant and sentimental Quando l’amore brucia l’anima (lit. When Love Burns the Soul) instead, which gives this biopic about a famous country singer the tone of a B-list rom com.
Une Belle Fille Comme Moi – Mica scema la ragazza!
This particular example perfectly sums up the Italian approach to movie title translations. A literal translation from the French (as the USA did with its translation) would have resulted in Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me.
In the original language, the film’s title gives the protagonist the opportunity to speak in the first person by introducing herself to viewers before they watch the film. The Italian title is instead envisaged as a comment made after the story has unfolded, and one that, unsurprisingly, could only be uttered by a man.
The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind – Se mi lasci ti cancello
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is one film in particular that has become a famous example of poor translation: it’s a well-known film starring Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, who uses this rare occasion to demonstrate his talent as a serious actor.
The film’s original title is a verse from a poem by Alexander Pope, an Englishman considered one of the most important poets of the eighteenth century. The film’s literal meaning was very difficult to convey to an Italian audience, while the original English sentence would also have gone over people’s heads. It was therefore decided to opt for a slightly more commercial, appealing title, which roughly translates into English as ‘If You Leave Me, I’ll Erase You,’ thus entirely killing the film’s intended poeticism.
The importance of transcreation
Translating advertising slogans, product names or film titles involves a number of rules. Simply translating to the letter, as we have just witnessed, often doesn’t work, which forces the translator to rewrite the text from scratch while also considering the linguistic expressions and culture of the target culture.
This type of translation is called transcreation, as the final result is essentially created by the translator from scratch.