Posts Tagged ‘Movie’

Following up on the last post about the mistranslation of film titles (and sometimes dialogue), I would like to focus on a recent and not very well-known case, The Wackness (2008), to provide a more detailed analysis of this curious phenomenon.

Let’s start, obviously, from the title, which became Fa’ la cosa sbagliataDo The Wrong Thing – clearly drawing on Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing. Now, words like “wackness” are a translator’s sweetest challenge and worst nightmare, as sometimes so much gets lost in the translation of slang that massive reworking is required. Anyway, this term comes up in a conversation where the main character is more or less defined by the girl he likes, who tells him

Know what your problem is, Shapiro? It’s that you just have this really shitty way of looking at things, ya know? I don’t have that problem. I just look at the dopeness. But you, it’s like you just look at the wackness, ya know?”

which in the Italian translation became

Sai qual è il tuo problema Shapiro? È che tu hai davvero un modo del cazzo di guardare alle cose, capisci? Io non ho quel problema, io vedo solo lo sballo… mentre tu vedi solo l’aspetto negativo… mi spiego?”

If you understand some Italian, you’ll notice how the passage’s register was sensibly altered by the translator, who appears to have ignored the slangy, youthful quality of the original, throwing in a very out-of-context “Sballo” which means “getting high”, and is not really suited to translate “dopeness”. Not to mention that “the wackness” became an unbelievably dull “negative aspect” without even an attempt at finding a decent solution. One could have tried something like

Sai qual è il tuo problema Shapiro? È che hai proprio ‘sto modo del cazzo di vedere le cose, capisci? Io non ce l’ho quel problema, io vedo solo i pregi… Ma tu, è come se vedessi solo gli scazzi… capisci?”

Please forgive my unsolicited – and still not satisfactory – translation, but the point is, one has to reproduce not just the meaning, but the tone, the style, the vague but nonetheless important spirit of the original. Create in the audience of the translated work the closest possible impressions to the ones the original produced in its own audience.

Moreover, this sentence is pivotal in the characterisation of the protagonist, it only makes sense that it becomes the title. And even if didn’t, that was the authors’ choice. The Italian title, though, is a distortion of a line Ben Kingsley’s character says:

Sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing, and right now is one of those times

Sure, under the original title there’s a small comment that reads “Sometimes it’s right to do the wrong things”. The quote, calling Spike Lee’s movie to mind, was already there, but it was discreet, and marginal. Not to mention that the imperative “Do the wrong thing” is nowhere to be heard in the movie. In my opinion, this approach is offensive to authors and spectators alike. At least to the serious ones.

A little aside, on the original poster the title was in beautiful and fitting wild style graffiti, while in the Italian version it was written in a rather bland and nondescript font. So much for fidelity.

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This post is a rather free adaptation of its Italian counterpart, which focuses on a peculiarly Italian problem. Some of you might be familiar with the abiding Italian habit of mistranslating film titles, sometimes beyond recognition and usually beyond any logic. Some titles are left untouched, fortunately, other might actually be too obscure for the average Italian to understand, and therefore need to be translated. The problem, though, is that what we see is not even a mistranslation, but rather a non-translation, a brand new title, by people who are nowhere near as talented as the authors. You might not care, of course. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re probably an English speaker, used to watch foreign films in their original version with subtitles. Still, it’s a curious phenomenon, so bear with me.

Let’s take Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example. We could have simply translated that word, into Vertigine. It’s perfect, scary for some, and it has the exact same effect on the Italian movie-goer that the original had on its audience. Instead, the movie is called La donna che visse due volte (The woman who lived twice). Never mind that this wouldn’t even be correct, but it’s a spoiler of some sort, isn’t it? You would kind of know what to expect.

Take Home Alone. Instead of translating the title into the exact equivalent A casa da solo, we called it Mamma, ho perso l’aereo, which means Mom, I missed the flight. It seems like it didn’t matter to the geniuses responsible for this that the missing of the flight was actually just the pretext to have the kid home alone to fight the bad guys. It’s like if Taxi Driver were called The Interview. Do not panic, the film in question is simply called Taxi Driver, even in Italy.

A recent survey by an Italian magazine, Trovacinema, showed an overwhelming majority of the readers thought the worst case ever was that of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The title is a verse by Alexander Pope, as you’ll probably know. In Italy, it became an appalling Se mi lasci ti cancello, more or less If you leave me I’ll delete you. This draws on an infamous but established tradition, which this article sums up nicely. See this examples:

“Se scappi ti sposo” (“Runaway bride”), “Se ti investo mi sposi?” (Elvis has left this building”), “Se cucini, ti sposo” (Time Share), “Prima ti sposo poi ti rovino” (Intolerable Cruelty) o “Tutti pazzi per Mary” (There is something about Mary), “Tutti pazzi per Jenny” (Dirty Love), “Tutti pazzi per l’oro” (Fool’s Gold).

You can see how the first three titles follow the same pattern in Italian, respectively coming up with titles which mean If you run away I’ll marry you, If I run over you will you marry me? and If you cook, I’ll marry you. The last three, again, share the same structure, and mean more or less Everybody’s crazy about Mary, Everybody’s crazy about Jenny, and Everybody’s crazy about gold. Sad state of affairs, isn’t it?

Luckily, there’s a growing trend to leave the original titles alone, and maybe sometimes adding an often questionable subtitle.

But the most disturbing cases, in my opinion, are the ones where the title is still in English, but it simply gets changed. I don’t know if you saw Permanent Midnight, with a surprisingly dramatic Ben Stiller. It’s the true story of Jerry Stahl, high-flying screenwriter in 1980’s Los Angels, his rise and fall at the hands of substance abuse. Now, a literal Mezzanotte Permanente would have been fine (even if the original title would probably have been widely understandable by the movie’s target audience in Italy). Instead, someone came up with the inexplicable Hard Night. Maybe it’s just me, but I instantly think about the story of a man who goes overboard with Viagra and literally stays up all night.

They even managed to turn a similar trick on the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Of course, “slumdog” is a tricky one, but that’s a big enough movie that someone involved should have had the time and/or talent to find a satisfactory solution. Instead, they just called it The Millionaire. That’s right. Never mind that the movie is about slum dogs, certainly not millionaires. In the same movie, and here I move to the actual translation of the script, there’s the scene where the main character and his brother lose their mother during a Hindu raid against the Muslim community. In the original, someone yells something in Hindi, which is subtitled with

They are muslims, get them!”

In the Italian version, they dubbed the Hindi in Italian (a questionable choice that would deserve a post on its own) except that what you hear is:

“Sono musulmani, scappiamo!”

which means

“They’re Muslim, let’s run away!”

The Italian Muslim community complained about this huge mistake. But I would like to see more people complaining for aesthetic reasons, because we’re talking about a movie. First of all, the mistake is absolutely incomprehensible, considered that the original was in subtitles, that a professional (?) translator working on a top-class film should understand “get them” and that later in the movie several scenes remind us that the main character and his brother are indeed Muslims. Someone suggested that it was an intentional mistake, with political reasons. But that’s speculation, so we’ll stick to the facts and just talk about incompetence. The scene is completely reversed by this laughable mistake. Think about it, it’s a bit like listening to a speech in which Hitler calls for the extermination of the Aryans and affirms the superiority of the Semitic race. No big deal.

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