Monday, March 21, 2011

Language Barrier

In the US, the Melville film is called Le Samourai*, not The Samurai. Similarly, Bob Le Flambeur is not known as Bob the Gambler. But then again, L'armée des Ombres is more commonly known in the English-speaking world as Army of Shadows.

Truffaut's fourth feature film is known either as Jules and Jim or Jules et Jim, depending on how large a boost of self confidence the writer needs at that moment. The vast majority of Kurosawa films are known in the US by their English titles, until you reach 1970, where a small cluster of his work is known only by the Japanese titles. In the case of Dodes'ka-den, the English version would wind up being something like Chugga-Chugga, or whatever you tell your kids is the sound a train makes, so that's understandable. Virtually none of Fassbinder's films are known in America by their German titles. When it comes to Fassbinder's countryman, Werner Herzog, the same thing holds true -- what is it about German, I wonder?

None of this bothers me, mind you. Bob Le Flambeur is a better title than Bob the Gambler, after all, and the choices made about which language will carry through to the American release seems almost entirely arbitrary. Yes, some foreign language titles scan better, even to monolingual Americans such as myself, in their original French or Spanish or Russian or what have you than the English equivalent, but replacing "and" with "et" when talking about Jules and Jim is just silly. You're fooling no one.

But at least in that case, you should by now be prepared to hear either one. What really gets up my nose is when somebody takes a foreign film that is known exclusively in the US by its English title, and then digs around to find out the original title, so they can throw it out in print, or conversation. By way of example, I have very little doubt that some version of the following conversation has taken place:

Guy #1: So, what do you want to do tonight?

Guy #2: I'm in the mood for a movie. A bunch of movies, even, but I don't feel like going out.

Guy #1: No problem, we can stay in and watch a marathon of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo.

This is meant, one assumes, to solidify the speaker's place among the elite, or what they view to be the elite, and to weed out any listeners with whom the speaker may not want to associate. This is a working theory only, but I feel confident that at its core, this practice is motivated by wickedness.

This expanded version of what should have been a Facebook update has been brought to you by my having recently seen someone refer to Michael Haneke's Code Unknown as Code Inconnu.

*Sorry, this computer wouldn't let me do the two little dots over the "i".


Bryce Wilson said...

This was Chestertonesque.

bill r. said...

But I didn't mention Christianity once.

Ed Howard said...

Sometimes the non-English title just sounds better, though. I probably would call the Haneke film Code Unknown, but the French title does roll off the tongue a bit better (not that I often have an opportunity to speak about that film aloud).

On the other hand, I can't bring to call the Resnais film The War Is Over when I could call it La guerre est finie. And somehow The Night is boring while La Notte is not (though presumably it would be to Italians).

And what about films where the English title has a totally different meaning than the original: is it À ma souer or Fat Girl, Slow Motion or Sauve qui peut (la vie)? When Rivette came out with Ne touchez pas le hache, I refused to call it The Duchess of Langeais as the US distributor did, preferring a literal translation of the original French, Don't Touch the Axe. So much better.

So there are plenty of reasons to use the orignal title. Or maybe I'm just one of those pretentious elites. Uh oh.

Bryce Wilson said...

"But I didn't mention Christianity once."

Well he wrote about other stuff too. He was pretty good at making absurdity and posturing look... well absurd wherever he found it.

Anyway it's the highest compliment I have in my deck so take it or leave it ; )

Bob Westal said...

Way, way back in my first film class -- even before I got into film school -- I took a class in European Cinema. I didn't have the syllabus handy one day, and I asked a somewhat older student I knew if he knew what we'd be seeing that day. He said, "Oh, one of my favorites. 'La Regle de Jeu.'"

Since then, "The Rules of the Game" has remained one of my favorite movies, too. The fellow student, I immediately wrote off.

bill r. said...

Ed - I agree with you! I even said that BOB LE FLAMBEUR is a better title than BOB THE GAMBLER; similarly, LE CERCLE ROUGE is better than THE RED CIRCLE. And completely butchering the original title's meaning in the "translation", as in THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS is terrible, so I'm with you there, too. But that's not really what I'm talking about.

Bryce - Oh, I took it as a compliment. I just haven't read nearly enough Chesterton to know where this could have possible fit in. But thanks!

Bob - Absolutely perfect example. I'd have punched that bastard right in the teeth!

Craig said...

I'm confused about The Bicycle Thief also being Bicycle Thieves. I don't know which is the correct translation, but the latter title seems more impersonal somehow.

bill r. said...

The latter is correct, I'm told, and I'm not really sure how it could have been mistranslated for so long. I think your problem is one of adjustment more than anything else. It just takes time, you see.

Craig said...

My problem with Bicycle Thieves is that by revealing in the title that there's more than one thief, it takes away the suspense of whether or not Antonio will eventually commit the crime. (Granted, it starts to take on an aura of inevitability, but still we don't know for sure.) With The Bicycle Thief, on the other hand, you spend the first half of the movie thinking it refers to the person who stole Antonio's bicycle, whereas by the end of the movie you apply it to him.

I don't feel that strongly about it, mind you. Just my two cents.

Neil Sarver said...

I confess a long-time fascination with this. I'm sure it came to mind the first time I saw something really obviously popularly known by an English title written in it's original language... I suspect it was either Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo or Shichinin no Samurai.

I'd be interested to know how some were decided in marketing.

And while I agree that some of the titles that sound more exotic and intriguing, I'm not sure how many of those are ultimately a mistranslation of sorts for that very reason.

Some, of course, help regardless. Le Samourai not only sounds better, it also communicates that it's a French movie and not, say, the first of the Musashi trilogy.

Neil Sarver said...

Not to mention, the opposite sin, when Japanese movies like House, Ring and Audition are named common English words and are then retranslated back into song kind of nonsense.

bill r. said...

Craig - That's a fair point, but I can't say it occurred to me as I was actually watching the film for the first time, as BICYCLE THIEVES.

Neil - That's a great point about LE SAMOURAI signalling the kind of film it is better than THE SAMURAI would. I don't imagine anyone was thinking along those lines when choosing which title would make it to the US, but it certainly has that effect.

As for AUDITION, HOUSE, etc...what are you referring to? Are you saying they have different, ridiculous titles in Japan now?

Greg said...

I sometimes refer to 8 1/2 as "Otto Semestre." Other times, "Il 8 1/2." I am the only person I know of who does this which makes me smart, witty and cool.

bill r. said...

No it doesn't, Greg. I already told you that we all just laught at you.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm of two minds on this, and have been somewhat inconsistent on the matter when writing up a foreign film (although I usually put both American and foreign title in my piece at least once).

As someone who's first language was Spanish, it irks me to see something lost in the translation of a title into English. Even when the translation is literal a slang connotation can be lost. Other times a title like TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! is an unnecessary complication of the simple ÁTAME! and presumably done to capitalize (from a marketing perspective) on the US public's recognition of Almodovar's previous long-titled film, WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

It also irks me to see foreign titles changed to something else here to pander to our audience. As an American I don't like it much when say, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE's title in Germany is ...FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.

Long story short, I often think it's best to stick to the original title.

bill r. said...

That all makes sense, Tony, but again, it's not really what I'm talking about. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is a pretty straight translation of IL BUONO, IL BRUTO, IL CATTIVO. And if you're Italian, or born Italian, I got no beef going with the original. But if you're calling that as a non-Italian, then you're just posing.

Neil Sarver said...

I call Greg "Otto Semestre."

He just makes more sense that way.

Neil Sarver said...

But I was referring to the times I've seen those movies written as Hausu, Ringu and, yes, Ôdishon. These are bs double translations.

If I use Babel Fish to translate Beneath the Planet of the Apes into Italian I get Sotto il pianeta delle scimmie. If I translate it back I get Under the planet of the monkeys... not quite right, although I'd totally watch it.

The same with those. They're just transcribing the kanji writing that's only intended to represent the English sounds.


I like Tony's points a lot.

But I still agree that most people who use the foreign titles in cases where a different title is familiar to the average viewer sound like tools.

Greg said...

Otto Semestre thinks Neil Sarver rocks. Otto calls him "Il Neilo."