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2. Types of changes made with film titles
3. Title translation
a. Translation of idioms, puns and culturally-specific allusions
b. Translation of English titles into German sentences
c. Translation of titles with undertones
e. Partial Changes
Title translation is one of the branches of movie dubbing. The process of title translation seems easy, but when we take a closer look at the names, phrases, and syntaxes of the titles, we might see that this process is not as easy as it seems.
The film title is very important for the future audience of the film, as the title is one of the main reasons, why a person decides to watch the film. The translation of film titles often provides “[…] insights into the values, priorities and zeitgeist of a culture” and so it is not possible to just take any title, when intended that people should watch the film.
The film title is also very important, but for other reasons, for the film studio, for the producer, and for all people involved in making the film. Their interests are mainly in commerce because they want to sell the film and make profit.
In my paper I want to talk about why changes are made, which types of changes and I want to show these changes on the basis of different examples. These examples are titles of older films, but also titles of recent films. Furthermore, I will show the difficulties with film title translations, mistakes that have been made, but also successful title translations.
The first survey on the typology of changes was conducted by Hesse-Quack in 1969. The survey was the comparison of the source language titles (English and French) with the target language titles (German). All in all, there were 1368 titles of English, American and French films from 1945 to 1962 compared.
The survey brought up three basic findings:
- Target language titles were more precise in grammatical structure, there was an increase in the number of meaningful units and a more frequent use of adverbials and attributive adjectives.
- The emotional impact is greater in the target language titles than in the source language titles.
- Culturally specific information and allusions occur more often in the source language titles than in the target language titles.
Another expert in movie dubbing, Müller-Schwefe, added that German titles more often attempt to manipulate and influence the audience.
In most cases, film titles cannot be translated literally. This is because of cultural differences, of puns, that are no puns in the target language title, or because of idioms that are not possible in the target language. But often, it is not desirable anyway. If film titles are translated literally, there is often more information missed or misunderstood and so the prospective audience could get a false impression of the film.
Now, I want to cite a few film titles as examples for this theory.
The first film title is One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Milo Forman film based on the novel by Ken Kesey. The title was literally translated into German as Einer flog über das Kuckucksnest. This was obviously a mistranslation. The word ‘cuckoo’ in English does not only describe the animal, the cuckoo, but it can also be used as a synonym for the words ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. In the film, we can say, the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ refers to the insane asylum, while in the German version of the film, we do not find any hints for a ‘Irrenanstalt’. So this is a typical example for a literal title translation that has gone wrong.
In some English film titles, phrases of nursery rhymes are used. I will now look at the nursery rhyme ‘Georgie Porgie’.
Georgie Porgie, Puddin' and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away.
From this nursery rhyme, the phrase ‘Kissed the girls’ is used in the film Kiss the girls by Gary Fleder, based on the novel by James Patterson.
The German film title was translated with … denn zum Küssen sind sie da. This phrase has nothing to do with the nursery rhyme phrase in the English title, and the translators paid no attention to the connection with the nursery rhyme. This is also the same case with the film Some Like it Hot by Billy Wilder. The German title Manche mögen’s heiß is literally translated and the English and the German title have no connection with each other.
Some film titles appear so easy to translate, perhaps too easy, that there are lots of examples of mistranslations. A Woman of Affairs by Clarence Brown was changed into Eine skandalöse Frau, but the translators obviously did not think about the word “affair” in detail, which does not only refer to a love affair, but could also be associated with business. Another example is the film The Celery Stalks at Midnight. The German title Sellerie schleicht um Mitternacht is a literal translation and nothing of the pun in the English title is translated.
The film title A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Richard Lester is a special example of misleading film title translation. The English-speaking population will easily find out that the phrase ‘A funny thing happened to me’ is always the introduction to a joke and so they know that this film will be a comedy and the word ‘forum’ prepares them for a setting in the Ancient Rome. The German title Toll trieben es die alten Römer shows not a bit of the humor and the play of words in the English title.
But there are also examples, where the problem of translating puns into the target language is solved in a seemingly easy way as it is the case with the play, and later film, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. ‘Earnest’ does not only mean ‘seriousness’, but it is also the homophone of the name of the character ‘Ernest’ in the play/film. This is why, in most languages, the title is untranslatable. German is one of the few languages, where a literal translation is possible, and where the translation has been realized successfully with the title Ernst sein ist alles. ‘Ernst’ is not only a first name, but also the German word for ‘seriousness’. Although the title is not translated literally, nearly the same information and also the pun in the English title is expressed.
The title of the film Bell, Book and Candle by Richard Quine is an English idiom for an ancient form of excommunication. This multidimensional title was translated into German with the one-dimensional Meine Braut ist übersinnlich, which is not an idiom at all.
Other examples, where a pun or an idiom can be found in the English title, sometimes also in the German title, are the following titles:
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels by Guy Ritchie
(Bube, Dame, König, grAs)
Fever Pitch by David Evans
Cinderfella by Frank Tashlin
English to German film title translators often have the habit to translate English titles that are made up of substantives, catchwords or names, into German sentences. I would like to cite a few examples for this habit:
Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone
(Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod)
Singin’ in the Rain by Kelly and Stanley Donen
(Du sollst mein Glücksstern sein)
Stripes by Ivan Reitman
(Ich glaub’, mich knutscht ein Elch)
The Third Wheel by Jordan Brady
(Hilfe, ich habe ein Date)
Sliding Doors by Peter Howitt
(Sie liebt ihn – Sie liebt ihn nicht)
Coming Home by Hal Ashby
(Sie kehren heim)
As we can see in the above titles, most of the English titles do not have anything in common with the German titles. The reason for this habit could be that the German-speaking audience pays more attention to longer and complete sentences. Another reason is that phrases like “coming home” cannot be expressed as clearly and as easily in German as in English. This is because of the lack of the gerund and the present participle in German. Therefore, the translators have to find other solutions for this problem. The German title for the film Coming Home is Sie kehren heim, which is an acceptable possibility, because the meaning stays the same. An opposite example, where the meaning changes completely, is the film Stripes. The German title Ich glaub’, mich knutscht ein Elch arouses totally different expectations with the audience, than does the English title.
Another example for a film, where the English title is changed into a complete German sentence, is Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. The English title refers to the annual holiday, the “Groundhog Day”, but the German title Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier does not. The reason, why the film is not named “Murmeltier-Tag” in German, could be that the German speaking audience would not be able to identify the title as a hint for a holiday.
The closer we look at the topic of English title translations into German sentences, the more we understand that there are no guidelines, how to do this. When we look at the example of the film When Harry Met Sally by Rob Reiner, we see that the English title is for once a whole sentence. But the translator obviously wanted to run counter to the original intent and translated the title with Harry und Sally, which is totally untypical for German titles.
Some titles convey a certain kind of undertone and often, these undertones are omitted for reasons like to de-eroticize titles, or to change the expectations of the audience. One example, where the undertone is omitted, is the film To Please A Lady by Clarence Brown. The German title is Der Tod im Nacken, which raises totally different expectations of the film. Another example of a film title, where the sexual element in the German title is weakened, is the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me by Jay Roach. In the German title Austin Powers – Spion in geheimer Missionarsstellung, the sexual hint is a lot less apparent than in the English title. On the contrast to the de-eroticized titles before, the film Pretty Maids All in A Row by Roger Vadim, which is a line of a nursery rhyme, was translated with Der Sex-Lehrer-Report. One more example is the film Cherry Falls by Geoffrey Wright, which is named Sex oder Stirb in German. So in these examples, the film titles are eroticized to arouse interest and to make the audience more aware of what to expect from the film.
Some more examples are:
Sleeping with the enemy by Joseph Ruben
(Der Feind in meinem Bett)
What planet are you from? by Mike Nichols
(Good Vibrations – Sex vom anderen Stern)
Knocked Up by Jude Apatow
(Beim ersten Mal)
 Candace Whitman-Linsen, Through the Dubbing Glass. The Synchronization of American Motion Pictures into German, French and Spanish. (Frankfurt: Peter Lang Verlag, 1992) 172.
 Ibid. 172-173.
 Ibid. 174.
 Ibid. 175-176.
 Iona Archibald Opie, The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1951) 185-186.
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