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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Hayden

Friday Frustrations: Titles & Subtitles

Today I'll be whining even more than usual because I'm overdue for an #FF post.

As you may know from past entries, I love watching films. I also enjoy foreign films in particular. Some of the most well-made movies I've ever were not in English. I've dabbled in learning a few languages, but in most of them I can say only a few words and phrases; nothing more. French and Italian, however, are tongues that I know well and it bothers me when the translated titles and/or subtitles are incorrect or incomplete.

In the latter case of being incomplete, sometimes I understand making the translation more concise—it's arguably more viewer friendly to have less text to read; to just get to the point. It's still bothersome to me when half the sentence is gone and simply summarized, but overall it doesn't change the experience all that much.

What really gets under my skin is when the subtitle is wrong, and wrong for seemingly no justifiable reason. Many years ago I watched a French film called Les Sœurs fâchées (The Angry Sisters). There was a scene where one sister is going to put something in the trunk, and her impatient sibling says "C'est ouvert." which means "It's open." The English subtitle though read, "It's not locked." But...why? If the screenwriter wanted the character to say "It's not locked" then she would have said that ("C'est pas enfermé"). But that's not what the actress said. She said "It's open."

The titles of foreign films (and books!) are often misleading too when looking at the corresponding English version. The film I mentioned above, for example, is marketed as "Me and my Sister" in English. That is an entirely different title than the feuding originally implied by the original title. The bestselling The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo novel is actually Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women) in Stieg Larsson's native Swedish. The other two books in that trilogy follow that pattern too. In Larsson's case, I actually liked the English titles better, but I'm still not completely on board.

A friend I met in graduate school who was from Nanjing talked about the translation of Pixar movie titles in China and how they had all been given titles that were similar to each other in Mandarin, suggesting to watchers that these films were somehow connected and part of a series as opposed to all being individual films.

100% fidelity is impossible; this I know. From one language to another, there is not always going to be a 1:1 relationship. In fact, in some languages there is never a 1:1 because of how their grammar is structured. But I like the (perhaps idealistic) idea of loyalty to the original insofar as possible.

It's not a big deal, but I don't understand some of these decisions. And if it were up to me, I would try to approach things differently. But I'm sure there are things I'm missing in my ignorance (such as considering which title will bring in the most money). Also, I know there are way more pressing problems in the world than this trivial matter, and honestly I don't spend that much time thinking about this issue. But it's something I wanted to write about, because it has to do with language. And movies!

To anyone reading this: Have a great weekend.

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