There seem to be several strategies when translating the name of a film into another language, and none of them work perfectly. You can go for a literal word-for-word translation, try to describe the film in the title, guess what the name might be based on the poster, or make up something completely new. Here, we explore a number of American movie titles in other languages.
To start, we’ll test you to see if you can guess the original movie title based on the movie posters we’ve mocked up. Then, we look at a few particularly fascinating title-changes, and try to group them into categories.
Can You Guess The Original Titles Of These Films?
Israeli (Hebrew) Title: אהבה בשחקים
Brazilian (Portuguese) Title: Onze Homens e Um Segredo
Japanese Title: マルコヴィッチの穴
Romanian Title: Închisoarea Îngerilor
Danish Title: Drengen, der druknede i chokoladesovsen
German Title: Ich glaub’, mich tritt ein Pferd
Other Classic Movie Titles In Other Languages
More famous examples of bad translations include the Japanese title of Army of Darkness (1993), Captain Supermarket (キャプテン·スーパーマーケット), and the unfortunate coincidence that the Chinese title of As Good As It Gets (1997) could also be translated as Mr. Cat Poop (猫屎先生). There’s also a myth that the French title for The Matrix (1999) was The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses (Les jeunes gens qui traversent les dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil), but it was really just the less exciting Matrix.
American Slang In Movie Titles
One of the biggest issues with movie titles in other languages is dealing with words and expressions that are specific to one language. Director David O. Russell tends to use English idioms and slang in the titles of his films. For instance, “hustle” is a difficult word to translate, seeing as the connotation goes beyond cheat or swindle; it can mean anything you do to make money and was also the name of a ’70s dance craze. It suggests everything that the film American Hustle (2013) is about: con artists, briefcases full of cash, polyester and disco. But somehow the subtlety gets lost in translation.
- American Bluff — France
- The Great American Swindle (La gran estafa americana) — Spain
- United States Cheat Bureau (美国骗局) — China
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) faced a similar problem. Although several countries translated “silver lining” (as in the nice part of a dark cloud) as something like “keep on the bright side,” France and Sweden made up completely new titles.
- Happiness Therapy — France
- You Make me Crazy! (Du gör mig galen!) — Sweden
I ♥ Huckabees (2004) had the nerve to use a heart symbol in the title. While this shouldn’t have been too confusing (most countries opted for “I Love Huckabees” in their own languages), a few countries decided to name the film after particular details of the plot.
- Strange Coincidences (Extrañas coincidencias) — Spain
- Multinationals Go Home! (Multik haza!) — Hungary
- The Psycho-Detectives (Os Psico-Detectives) — Portugal
At the far end of the American slang spectrum, Keenan Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka! (1988) was way too culturally specific to even try to translate.
- Overdose of Gold (Sobredosis de oro) — Spain
- Run, Run … Then I’ll Take It! (Scappa, scappa… poi ti prendo!) — Italy
- Ghettobusters — Germany
Bad Titles Never Die
The Die Hard series has titles that are notoriously hard to translate. Direct translation attempts miss the mark, so every country seems to have found a different strategy for naming these über-American action films.
Die Hard (1988)
- Die Slowly (Stirb langsam) — Germany
- Very Hard To Die (Πολύ Σκληρός για να Πεθάνει) — Greece
- Action Skyscraper (Aksjon skyskraper) — Norway
- The Glass Trap (Szklana pulapka) — Poland
Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)
- The Jungle 2: Red Alert (La jungla 2 — Alerta roja) — Spain
Die Hard: With A Vengeance (1995)
- Die Hard: Mega Hard — Denmark
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
- Die Hard 4.0: The Most Expensive of Your Life (Die Hard 4.0 – Legdrágább az életed) — Hungary
A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)
- Tough Nut To Crack: A Great Day to Die (Kietas riesutelis. puiki diena mirti) — Lithuania
The Robots Are Mobilizing
The Chinese characters for “story” used in most movie titles, zǒngdòngyuán (总动员), literally breaks down into “general mobilization”, which sounds militaristic and vaguely threatening. This trend is particularly apparent in Pixar films.
- Toy General Mobilization (玩具总动员) — Toy Story
- Super People General Mobilization (超人总动员) — The Incredibles
- Seabed General Mobilization (海底总动员) — Finding Nemo
- Food General Mobilization (美食总动员) — Ratatouille
- Machine Implement People General Mobilization (机器人总动员) — WALL-E
Speaking of machine implement people – or robots, as the characters 机器人 can also be translated – when The Terminator came out in 1984, most countries opted to keep something close to the original title, but a few went rogue.
- Electronic Murderer (Elektroniczny morderca) — Poland
- The Dealer of Death (A halálosztó) — Hungary
- The Relentless Exterminator (O Exterminador Implacável) — Portugal
Side note: when the dubbed version of Terminator 2: Judgement Day came out in Spain (soberly titled, Terminator 2: El juicio final), Arnie’s famous “Hasta la vista, baby” was changed to “Sayonara, baby” in order to maintain the spirit of the catchphrase being in a foreign language.
Comedies Are “Ace”
In China, the titles of popular films tend to get reused, even when the new films are not sequels or even related. This is likely why every Pixar film since Toy Story got the “general mobilization” treatment as a way of branding them all as Pixar films.
A similar trend happened with the word “ace,” and it’s all Jim Carrey’s fault. To translate the “ace” in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the Chinese title used the characters 王牌 (wángpái), which literally mean “king card”. But “Ace” didn’t stop there. Not only does it feature in the title of almost every Jim Carey movie, it seems wángpái has become Chinese shorthand for “silly comedy.”
- Ace Big Liar (王牌大骗子) — Liar Liar
- Ace God (王牌 天神) — Bruce Almighty
- Ace Big Cheap Spy (王牌大贱谍) — Austin Powers
- Ace Announcer (王牌播音员) — Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
The Anchorman sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2014) got a totally different treatment on the Iberian peninsula.
- To Hell With the News (Al diablo con las noticias) — Spain
- F— the News (Que Se Lixem As Notícias) — Portugal
Bad Translation, Or Accidental Poetry?
There are movie titles in other languages that are bad because they seem to not match the movie at all, but there are also times when differences can be ingenious. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) is an iconic American Western that is actually Italian, but was filmed in Spain. Most countries (including the United States) literally translated the original Italian title, C’era una volta il West. It seems that China tried to translate the title, the Swedes came up with something that sounds like a Bob Dylan/Captain America mashup. The Germans were also taken with Charles Bronson’s deadly harmonica skills.
- Western Department of Memories (西部往事) — China
- Harmonica: The Avenger (Harmonica – En hämnare) — Sweden
- Play Me The Song of Death (Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod) — Germany
And sometimes the rules of bad translation are broken when a new title ends up being better than the original. For example, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was known in Spain as Batman: Knight of the Night (Batman — El Caballero de la Noche) and in Japan, John Frankenheimer’s paranoid cold war thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was called Sniper Without A Shadow (影なき狙撃者).
Illustrations by James Chapman.