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Lost in Translation: Movie Titles in Other Languages

Have you ever wondered how they come up with movie titles in other languages? Surprisingly, movie titles are not that easy to translate into different languages and they can get lost in translation. Often the titles need more than just simple translation or transliteration; they need localization and even in some cases, transcreation.

This reminds me of my own “lost in translation” experience. As a student in Paris, I had attempted several times to watch French movies, but seemed to have difficulty staying awake during them. French-speaking friends laughed at me when they heard that I had fallen asleep in the Sophie Marceau French comedy, Un Bonheur N’arrive Jamais Seul (Happiness Never Comes Alone). As eager as I was to get exposed to the French language, my brain desperately needed to be refreshed by watching something that I could actually comprehend and enjoy, an English movie. One day, I encountered this huge poster of the Hollywood film, The Perks of being a Wall-flower, starring Emma Watson. It was hanging in the front of UGC Montparnasse cinema and I asked my French friends to go see it with me. However, none of them had any idea of the film I was talking about. I attempted to translate the title in French literally as the benefits of being an unpopular person. Only after I started describing the poster with the Harry Potter character Hermione from Hogwarts in it, did one of them shout, Le Monde de Charlie! (The World of Charlie). And of course, I calmly replied, Non, ce n’est pas la.

It was surprising when I later found out that The Perks of being a Wall-flower and Le Monde de Charlie were exactly the same movies. Words like “perks” or “wallflower” must have been difficult to translate in order to give off the identical meaning in French, not to mention that transliteration is almost a taboo in the French market unless the title itself is a signature of a film, like Hobbit or Spiderman. But it went further. Not only did the movie use an unfamiliar title, but it was also dubbed in French. When it comes to animated movies such as Wreck it Ralph, released as Le monde de Ralph (The World of Ralph) with the flawless French dubbing, one would think that they were made originally in France. Everything considered, complete localization works perfectly in the French market since French consumers prefer their language and culture over those of their counterparts.

Of course, different strategies should be implemented in different target markets. For instance, the Korean market would never release a Hollywood movie dubbed in Korean and most of the time, go with transliteration of an original title. This is done partially because the dominating segment of Korean movie-goers are in their 20s to 30s, and are believed to be English speakers with a passion for improving their foreign language skills.

Recently my lost in translation experience was shared with international fans of the Hollywood film American Hustle when it was nominated in the major OSCAR categories. Overseas viewers may not have recognized immediately the film’s English title because of the variations of its name across the globe. It was translated as “American Dream” in Israel, “American Bluff” in France, “American Scandal” in Argentina, “American Sting” in Portugal, “Trickster” in Turkey, etc. The essence of the word “Hustle” was difficult to convey in other languages so other words were used to be more eye-catching or appropriate in different markets.

According to Arie Barak, whose public relations company represents the studios of Fox, Disney and Sony in Israel, the current trend in the film industry is to keep the original title or a literal translation, but Hollywood Studios are more than happy to adapt it if there’s a better name to attract more viewers ( Hollywood movie titles lost in translation). And they would go further and localize their products fully for certain markets, by leveraging voice-over in a local language instead of subtitles, which in turn, helps gain more viewers. The perks of localization, however, are not just limited to the film industry. Localization is considered “a must” before releasing a product in overseas markets across all industries, as it’s closely linked to increased overseas profit.

A hit product in one market may go bust in another if it is not ideally adapted based on differences in cultural characteristics and consumer propensity. In addition, regardless of how amazing a product itself is, if its launch is wrong, it takes longer to build up a customer base. Localization is a key element to a successful marketing plan. At the end of the day, all of its perks will show in the bottom line.