Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Titles Translated


In his book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock's best film. I watched it again this past week and I'm ready to agree. From the opening scenes of Newark with the Pulaski Skyway looming overhead to the gee-whiz innocence of Santa Rosa, California, I was completely captured by Hitchcock's meticulous control of each image and the economy with which he drives the story. Filmed during the war years, I was curious to see if the film was released in Germany and looked it up in the IMDb (Internet Movie Database.) Yes, it was shown in Germany, but only after 1947 when it was released as Im Schatten des Zweifels, a sensible title and essentially a direct translation of the original. That kind of common sense is more often the exception than the rule.

About a year ago I wrote a post about another film, Krabat. It's based on a wonderful children's book written by Ottfried Preußler that's a classic in its original German, but virtually unknown in the English speaking world. I wondered why, until I heard the title of the English version: The Satanic Mill. My guess is, the books were probably brought directly to the landfill, still hot from the presses. The original title, Krabat, is simply the name of the main character. What was wrong with that? Were they trying to appeal to some previously untapped diabolical niche market?

Titles often suffer in the other direction too. The German market seems to prefer titles that explain and clarify as opposed to the American preference for the laconic. So, while on this side of the Atlantic movies are trending more and more toward one word titles,  in Germany those titles are often given a little boost.  The 1989 James Belushi film, K9, becomes Mein Partner mit der kalten Schnauze in the German speaking world.  Hitchcock's 1948 film,  Rope, became Cocktail für eine Leiche in German.  And the 1980 comedy Airplane was translated as Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug. A translation like that doesn't do anything to dispel the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humor.

Sometimes it seems as though translated titles are a reasonable response to the expectations and conventions of the target culture, but often they're just a mystery to me. When Disney made Erich Kästner's German classic, Das doppelte Löttchen, into the Parent Trap in 1961, the name change probably made a lot of sense. After all, would the average American know that Lotte or the diminutive, Löttchen, is a standard girl's name in German? The Parent Trap is a snappy update and makes the title accessible in English. Then the film was dubbed into German and released under what may be the
clumsiest title I ever heard: Die Vermählung ihrer Eltern geben bekannt. Does the passive voice really set the tone we want for a children's comedy? When Disney remade the Parent Trap in 2002, German translators had a chance to get it right and title the film Das doppelte Löttchen, but instead they opted for Ein Zwilling kommt selten allein. OK, I'll admit, it's an improvement over the first attempt (it was a pretty low bar) but does, "A Twin Comes Seldom Alone", really hit the nail on the head? Ich don't think so.

Mostly I enjoy the translation of concepts from one language to another. I looked up the English expression "dumb down" today in an Eng/Deutsch on-line dictionary and discovered the wonderful expression, "das geistige Niveau herunterschrauben." I can't wait to use it in a sentence.  But bad titles always bring out my inner curmudgeon. The American title, Vanilla Sky, for the Spanish film, Abre los ojos, just seems dumb to me. Also, bad titles often reveal too much about a film. The German title for Hitchcock's  Vertigo: Vertigo - Aus dem Reich der Toten, is a good
example. The viewer needs to be puzzled by the events of Hitchcock's story and the German additional subtitle, "from the empire of Death," changes the viewer's experience of the film for the worse. Ultimately, I think we can lay the blame for all these bad titles at the door of marketers that don't trust their consumers.  Hitchcock had faith in his audience and his audience rose to his expectations. With too many titles, marketers try to "dumb down" the content  and almost always to the detriment of the film or book being translated. Luckily, the making of bad titles seems to have its own built in punishment and is therefore probably self limiting. Just ask the English language publisher of Ottfried Preußler's Krabat as they sit on 100,000 unsold copies of The Satanic Mill. Sie haben die geistige Niveau des Titels herunterzuschrauben versucht und sind selber schuld.


Em said...

Isn't the very definition of a twin, that it comes as a pair? On the other hand, I've seen my share of B movies that had titles that were deceptively intriguing, and had to do with nothing. I think they're banking on that percent of people who are 1.willing to take a chance on an obscure, but intriguing-titled movie, and 2.not willing to turn it off 10 minutes in. so, me.

Port Douglas hotels said...

I really amaze with twins or triplets etc. They are actually amazing, they can understand and act the same as the other half of him. I really admire them. I hope that I could have a twin also. It would be great.(LOL)