Why the Funniest Movie Titles in Translation Are even Funnier than You Think



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One perennial listicle favorite on the Internet is the errors that foreigners make in English. The secret hope there is if foreigners are confused enough with our language, they won’t ever find out how hard we are laughing at how confused they are. English, our mother tongue, rolls in our mouth lapping a teat of safety. Our instinctive mastery is at light years’ remove from the blunders of struggling foreigners. They’ll never catch up. But we are kind, and wish to spare them that fact.

In my case things get a tad more complicated. English isn’t my first language. I’m passing as a native speaker. Discriminating pureborn Americans have sometimes picked up on a couple of twangs and endings and caught me out. Occasionally I suspected that if I were Albino, they would not have noticed these giveaways, but I knew this to be wishful thinking. I try to overcome what I prefer to consider a mild handicap by entertaining thoughts of copying out whole books by Western writers. Mind you, not Proust, even if Moncrieff channels him better than nearly anyone has the right to hope. Only the concise ones would do. Not Conrad, for obvious reasons. Once I did type out five pages of Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse, but there weren’t enough pretty words in it, so I quit.

Talking about funny errors that foreigners make in English, I came across some listicles on the “Funniest Movie Titles in Translation.” I would really like to unpack what is funny and what goes beyond that in these reported gaffes. It always helps to go over to the other side and look back. In this trifling exercise, I’ll stick with the Chinese ones, my French being a pure distillate of American schooling, and my German an accidental liability acquired through liaisons with a man from the Westphalian hinterland. Here is a selection:

Boogie Nights > 一舉成名 > His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous
Fargo >
雪花膏離奇命案 > Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream
The English Patient >
別問我是誰 > Don’t Ask Me Who I Am
The Professional >
這個殺手不太冷 > This Hit Man is Not as Cold as He Thought
Good Will Hunting >
驕陽似我 > Bright Sun, Just Like Me
Dead Poets Society >
暴雨驕陽 > Bright Sun in Heavy Rain
As Good as It Gets >
貓屎先生 > Mr. Cat Poop

How much of this bunch of jokes do we owe to incompetence, cluelessness, and word-whoring? Which part is the honest mistake, the catch-22, the cost you eat for intercultural communication? Any of it?

All these translations came out of Hong Kong. Here’s what I think I know about the place. The viewers there like to have an inkling of what they are paying for. Fair enough, since they are less likely to have heard of the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient.”) The city being a boom town, you should also expect a lot of hawking and a minimum of hand-wringing over artistic compromises. At the same time, the British colonial past and a workforce educated in the West that comes with the territory means that amateur mistakes are less likely.

Most Chinese novels and movies have titles that are as obvious as a boombox. Only the best and the bestselling writers can afford to be coy. The great comic writer Lao She went out on a limb with “A Collection in Clams and Seaweed” for one of his short-story volumes. The Queen of Romance Qiong Yao churned out over two decades titles that leaned on the Chinese poetic canon, replete with the haze of dreamed rain, the changeless change of red sunsets, and a thousand knots of the heart. Nary a plot line in their distant mauve mist.

Western films cannot, except for a Spielberg here and there, lay claim to such privilege. They need some sort of handle coming East. Something that can coax the viewer closer to the idea of watching a bunch of foreigners do their thing on the screen.

This brings me to the dirty secret behind some of these seemingly outlandish translations. In a word, the English translation of the Chinese translations did not return the favor the movie originals owe their Chinese handlers. In addition to pandering to cheap laughs and puerile associations, the Chinese translators also found a way to help their audience relate. When turning these titles back into English, the Western translators didn’t bother to undertake the latter. This may be understandable, to the extent that the joke would go out of some of what they are having us look at.

The backstory is that, the better job a translator does, the harder it gets to translate her rendition back to the original. It’s a bit like this: if the sugar has become one with your ice tea, you would be hard pressed to produce it intact from the sweetened liquid. “Boogie Nights” is an apt example. Some viewers in Hong Kong may have the foggiest idea of the tawdry, soul-wrenching nothing that underpins the excesses of the seventies’ porn industry in America, but you sure as hell can’t count on it to sell a whole movie. A straight translation won’t cut it. Gotta start closer to home. Good thing the Chinese have got a lot of cultural clutter to choose from. The translator hit on a juicy pun with this stock phrase, “With one blow he rises to fame.” Erections are universal, whatever claims the government in Beijing may make about Chinese exceptionalism. 

Ditto with the sun beating down on two films about young people, “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” “The fierce sun” is a veteran formula that checks off several selling points in one go: A Chairman Mao quote comparing young people to the morning sun; pairing up to the classical metaphor of teachers as nourishing rain to grow their students; and a fawning pitch framing the young as beloved brilliant creatures of unchecked will. You got your bang for the buck there.

The snowy cream has an even simpler explanation. That’s just “Fargo” written out in Chinese by sound. The translator probably did it on purpose, since there are more proper-sounding, less culinary words he could have chosen. Or maybe he was just pressed for time, and grabbed the words out of a hat. The Cold Professional gag and the “Don’t Ask My Name” posturing both derived from songs popular in Hong Kong at the time, as hooks to hang the proverbial hat on.

Having come this far, I see now I was wrong to accuse the Western translators of deliberately withholding information. I can’t think of a way to translate some of these back into English either.

Take the youth film bits. The only person I know of who negotiated these hairbreadth curves with flair is David Hawkes, the Oxford don who translated the Dream of the Red Chamber, a book that is in the top-two running for China’s best novel. Youth is green, according to Chinese imagery. Hawkes turned much of it into gold, to make accessible to Western readers this tale of beautiful and prodigiously gifted young people whose sojourn in an improbable Sanssouci clashes with the sordid world of adults, the scions of aristocratic houses that are run like rotting corporations. And he caught some flak from quarrelsome Chinese critics, who reacted the way a Shakespearean actor collars a translator for editing down the Bard’s lines. And Hawkes was working from the original, not translating translations.

I haven’t said anything about Jack Nicholson as Mr. Cat Poop. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Next time, I’ll blog about why Chinese is a bigger and better language than English.

Dragon’s Pricks and Monks’ Uniforms: Chinese Subtitle Gaffes in “Game of Thrones”

I want to take up here some gaffes in the traditional Chinese subtitles for the U.S. drama “Game of Thrones,” to explore some of the challenges and joys of translation. A quick preface: Subtitles are darn hard to do. Reading them is a distraction from watching the show that is no less evil for being necessary. You got to keep them short and sweet (optimal subtitle length for Chinese is 13 characters; 20 would scream bloody murder), timed and framed nimbly, so you don’t block the image or trip up the pace. It’s like making Twitter mandatory for the TV screen, which the most die-hard fan of brevity would shudder at. Some slashing and gory cutting therefore comes with the territory. And these particular subtitles, accompanying the DVD version of the first three episodes of the show’s first season, are for the most part quite serviceable and occasionally very good.

However, plot, character and atmosphere buildup all suffer when translation goes awry. In the show’s opening episode, the banter between some of Winterfell’s highborn young men hints at the backstory of the queen. She is referred to as “a sleek bit of mink,” hinting at her beauty, hauteur, poise, talent for intrigue as well as the whiff of scandal that foreshadows her incest/infidelity. The subtitle tosses out baby and bathwater, informing us that “the queen is quite slim (皇后很苗條).” Where is the Urban Dictionary when you need it? The pity is that there is a full-bodied Chinese equivalent for this seductress image – mink/minx – namely, the fox fairy, 狐狸精. This umbrella term for “the other woman,” femme fatal, and feminine seduction has an entire classicStrange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異)devoted to it. I would say “那隻滑不留手的雪狐精,”to take care of the conniving part through the double entendre of sleek/slick 圓滑/狡猾.

The prince’s womanizing is also diminished from lost image and cadence. The lyrical ribaldry of “the right royal prick” could have been rendered 精神虎虎的龍屌操the lively Dragon’s Prick) with a nod to China’s long-running imperial harem and the attendant habit of couching the emperor’s sexual exploits in ceremonious terms. Instead, the Chinese dialogue speaks demurely of the Prince “screwing around/trifling with girls (玩過的女孩). “龍屌操”does alliterate some, too, like the original.

I can think of two possible objections to this point of view. One is that since this show needs to pass muster with restrictions on adult content in Taiwan, the sex has to be toned down. The second is that viewers do not want jarring references to native Chinese imagery when watching a Western production. The latter, a hotly debated question, is central to the unresolved ambiguity with which Chinese relate to their own heritage. I won’t be able to put it to bed. The former is more problematic, since the buying public would certainly balk at having the show censored wholesale due to broadcast concessions. They would want the original restored in the safety of their homes.

Small omissions cast large shadows that blur the viewer’s grasp of the thoughts and motivation of characters. Tyrion, the dwarf lord, debuts with a prostitute coiled around his nether parts. When she expresses amazement at his prowess, he smiles, sweetly relieved: “The Gods gave me one blessing” (神明給了我一樣祝福). The trouble here is twofold. First, the translation does not capture his implicit stress that he’s got nothing else to be thankful for and, with it, the pathos of his self-regard. Second, given the idiosyncrasies of Chinese grammar regarding tenses, the viewer may think Tyrion is talking about some one-shot deal between him and the gods that would only last till next Thursday. Far better to have captioned: “神明賜我的只有這一件恩典。”When Jon, Lord Stark’s illegitimate son, walks into the sick chamber to say goodbye to his comatose half-brother, his stepmother immediately cuts him off: “you’ve said it.” The subtitle 你已經道別過了,again neglects the fact that, without the aid of tenses, Chinese must account for things that in English come part and parcel. The viewer might think Lady Stark is referring to an earlier farewell that happened offstage, making her rejection a bit more justifiable and weakening the tension of the moment. It should have been “你這不正在道別了嗎,夠了。”

I’ll just make a listicle of some of the things I have quarrel with:

“Ale”– became 酒,a nondescript term for all alcohol. 麥酒, the correct full rendition, would restore the flavor of time and place.

“Good man” –  misunderstood and taken literally as 好人 (as in “a virtuous man.”) Should have been 好漢子, to highlight the bravery of the men going to the Wall. The term has an echo of the medieval valor of the English original, as it was found in “Heroes of the Water Margins 水滸傳,” late-medieval romance, and still very much in currency in martial arts novels.

The chiding affection of “Little beast” became 小畜生,coming across much harsher in Chinese. This is where literal translations crash and burn. The Chinese expression means “low-life,” except when it’s very old-fashioned parents chatting with their friends about their son, providing a mock severity to mask their obvious affection with. (Don’t ask. It’s one of those cultural intergalactic gaps. The birthplace of tiger moms.) “小鬼” (literally “little imp”) would be the “dynamic equivalent” given the context.

Jaime trying to lighten his own guilt about throwing a ten-year-old child out of a tower: “grotesque cripple (醜惡的殘廢)” became “strange cripple (奇怪的殘廢)” As strange as the translator not bothering to look up the word online. How baffling is it to have this shrewd passionate heartless character make such a lame comment to his own dwarf brother, another “grotesque cripple” in everyone’s eyes. You usually get this problem with translators whose Chinese is not up-to-par. Another possible explanation is a rush job, so that the translator does not linger over word choice, but defaults to the broadest, fuzziest catch-call that say, in the end, less than nothing.

Jon, the forsaken bastard son, bidding farewell to his comatose baby brother: “I am taking the black.” The translator understands it as “I am going to wear the black uniform 我要穿黑制服.” Not only has the monastic farewell to earthly joys been taken out, but the jarring modern “black uniformshoots a hole in the stirring moment of what is known, hauntingly, as 生離死別 in Chinese. (For “saying goodbye while alive and parting in death” can allude to occasions when the two scenarios are one and the same. You know you are saying goodbye for the last time.) You can say: “我要受戒穿黑袍了,” I’ll be taking the vow in black habit,” to footnote the “black” and to lean on the Buddhist rite of initiation custom-made for its Catholic equivalent.

“Poachers I caught in my land” became “poachers caught in my kingdom (我的王國).” This mistake is particularly confusing happening so early on, since the speaker, a landowner, had just reaffirmed his fealty to his King in exile, and we are still getting to know the characters.

Quite a bit of the humor is lost. Humor admittedly is the last thing anyone gets when learning a new language. In my case it took, oh, fifteen years after I landed on these shores as a twelve-year-old. And because humor varies much from culture to culture, it is especially tricky to transfer. Still, one can but try.

Lord Tyrion on seeing the ganging up against Jon, the new arrival, remarks about the man in charge who ordered it “a charming man,” which the translator directly blurts out as “a man of much allure (很有魅力的人)All irony is drained out of it. 魅力is attraction, charisma, allure – but not the suave courteous quality that Tyrion is evoking here. Some Chinese viewers may even think Tyrion admires the man’s brutish management style. I would say “好溫雅的人,” which packs the punch of sarcasm called for.

Upon one of Jon’s adversaries accusing Jon of breaking his nose, Jon riffs: “It’s an improvement.” In Chinese, “有進步 –-(progress has been made).” Viewers may think Jon is commenting on the guy’s fighting getting kicked up a notch from their encounter. Should have been “比原來順眼多了。”

The books that the show is based on were translated into Chinese before the show was made. I will pick up a copy soon to see whether the DVD owes the print version any debts, good and bad. Will report back.