Lost In Translation, or, Why ‘The Hangover’ Can’t Just Be ‘The Hangover’

I love using IMDb. Whenever I’m done watching a movie, or sometimes even during the movie itself, I like to check out information on the actors, especially the trivia section. However, IMDb has recently become much more difficult for me to use due to the introduction of an automatic geolocation feature, which translates the titles of the shows and films directly into the language of the country where the user is based.

For example, if I’m looking through Ed Helms’s filmography, as I live in France I will find titles which were understandably translated into French to make more sense for French speakers. La Nuit au Musée 2 is thus substituted for Night At the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, and Evan Almighty becomes Evan Tout-Puissant. However, don’t think that in France all titles are automatically translated into French. French people may not be famous for their ability to speak English well, but distributors sometimes rightly assume that Frenchies will be able to understand an English title. Hence, going back to Ed Helms’s filmography, I will also find The Office or American Dad, but I will not find Family Guy, a show whose title was changed to Les Griffin (“The Griffins”), even though one could reasonably expect even the least fluent Frenchie to understand the meaning of the words “family” and “guy”.

What’s more surprising is that some titles seem to be inexplicably changed to a completely different English-language title. Ed Helms’s IMDb page does not, therefore, feature The Hangover, but another film rather surprisingly entitled Very Bad Trip! I understand that most people here in France would not know what the English word, “hangover”, exactly refers to (even though they have already experienced lots of them), but then I don’t think that many French people would definitely know what a “trip” is, either.

So why do movie distributors decide to translate a movie title or to leave it in English, or change it to another English title altogether? Perhaps a more interesting question would be, Who gets to choose between those options? I have not been able to find the answer to that one, although it’s probably safe to assume that no linguist is involved. The only explanation I could find was a rationale behind the choices prompting movie studios to change a title or not. There are, it appears, six options when an English-language film or TV show is to be released on the French market:

1. Leaving the title in English and hoping that French people will understand. This can be quite an efficient choice, and seems to be a no-brainer in the case of big franchises. Thus, The Matrix did not become La Matrice (Thankfully!) but was slightly altered to Matrix, which prevents the mass phonetic crime that would have been millions of French nerds, unable to master the pronunciation of “the”, talking about “Ze Matrix”. A quick look at recent releases seems to show that this may be the most common approach, as the French box-office currently features The Hunger Games, and not Les Jeux de la Faim. However, this is not necessarily the way that distributors chose to go in the past decades, as there was a tendency to translate titles, even literally.

2. Using a literal translation was quite common in the past, and is still used today, in many cases. A very famous example is Star Wars, which was notably altered to La Guerre des Etoiles, even though the latter literally means “the stars’ war”. Call me a nit-picker, but I think that does make a significant difference, actually. Likewise, Pirates of the Caribbean became Pirates des Caraïbes, even though the original title seems transparent enough. It makes more sense to resort to a literal translation when the title contains a more obscure word, such as La Colère des Titans (Wrath of the Titans), or even Harry Potter et les Reliques de la Mort – the Deathly Hallows being quite a cryptic phrase, even for some native English speakers.

3. Adapting a cultural reference. This was notably done for several TV shows, including the number 1 program on French TV, and subject of a future column, CSI. This acronym would mean nothing to many French speakers and expanding it to its full form to translate it would probably make the show a lot less appealing (Crime Scene Investigation = Enquête sur le Lieu du Crime?) . Distributors thus decided to translate the title to Les Experts, which is as vague as anything else. Interestingly enough, NCIS, another very successful show here in France, was not translated and remains NCIS, even though no-one here has the faintest idea what that acronym might mean.

4. Clarifying a title with a geographical reference is an option which seems to have been heavily favored for soap operas and TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s. Knots Landing thus became Côte Ouest, which explains why for many French people, the phrase “West Coast” is more likely to evoke memories of a glittery soap opera rather than hip-hop music. Once again, the lack of transparent words in the title is what may have inspired the adaptation.

Some titles may have been even more enigmatic to French viewers and required more explanation. An obscure reference to a postcode, like, say, 90210, was clarified for French viewers as a simple yet efficient Beverly Hills, and, more recently, The O.C. was adapted to Newport Beach, which most viewers would still fail to identify as a Californian location and interpret it as a show about surfing and yachting, which is only very marginally true.

Even more unfathomable is the choice to translate Law and Order as New York: Police Judiciaire, which sounds extremely cold and administrative, but then again, French people love administration. Here, the reference to New York is probably meant to add a little glamour and a picturesque aspect. I can’t help thinking that literally translating the title to La Loi et l’Ordre would have made for a far more compelling statement.

5. Severing a cultural reference through translation is another approach that has been used for several TV shows since the ’60s, possibly leading to very different meanings and possible misunderstandings or even letdowns for the viewers as to the content of the show. Hence, cult ’60s British show The Avengers is known to French viewers as Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir, literally “bowler hat and leather boots”, a title which could be misconstrued for a show about bondage tips and foot fetish, which, again, the show hardly deals with.

Likewise, but perhaps less dramatically, ’70s British series The Persuaders! was unaccountably adapted as Amicalement Vôtre – literally “sincerely yours”. More recently, Two and a Half Men was not left as such or even translated literally, perhaps for fear that some viewers may expect to watch a show about vertically-challenged people, and is therefore known around these parts as Mon Oncle Charlie (My Uncle Charlie), which is a lot less mysterious but also a lot less appealing.

6. Creating a different English title (but why?) is the final option, and the reason that prompted me to write this article. It seems to me that this can only be a possibility when the original title is too difficult to translate literally, and when the distributors insist on leaving the title in English to make it more colorful. In general, the newly-crafted English title relies on extremely simple words to make sure that most French people would not be lost in translation (or lack thereof). Hence, in recent years, Analyze This was released in France as Mafia Blues, which may successfully encapsulate the premise of a movie about a gangster’s psychological issues.

More recently, Youth in Revolt, featuring Michael Cera and his evil, seductive doppelgänger, simply became Be Bad (which sounds atrocious, if you ask me). And Reese Witherspoon’s latest release, This Means War, was released under the name Target. The latter remains quite an intriguing choice because the word “target” is both far from common for French speakers and quite remote from the movie’s tagline. In fact, the creation of a wholly new English title may just as well be a marketing trick, not necessarily to offer a more readily understandable title, but mostly to entice viewers into watching the movie by alluding to sexual content.

Since the late ’90s, there has indeed been a streak of such titles, as Wild Things became Sex Crimes, Cruel Intentions was known as Sex Intentions and Not Another Teen Movie was turned into Sex Academy. Unsurprisingly, all of these films ended up being quite successful among French teenagers (present company included) back then. Such an approach can therefore lead to pretty peculiar reinventions of a film’s content or meaning.

All this goes to show that there is no logic in titling foreign films or TV shows: some distributors will not bother translating and others dumb down a title to make it ‘more accessible’ to a French audience. This classification still leaves several questions unanswered. Why was Hunger Games not translated, unlike Pirates des Caraïbes? Why wasn’t The Hangover released here as La Gueule de Bois (yes, that’s “the wooden face”, in case you were wondering)?

When it comes to translating titles, I think there are more questions than answers. It seems to me that occasionally, in trying to remove a cultural reference related to American or British cultures in a title, the translator (or whoever decided to alter the title) is in a way trying to eradicate the reference to an American cultural icon altogether, in a way resembling what some Americans did with so-called “freedom fries”: the point was to get rid of all references to France. Sometimes, the translation of the title completely changes the meaning, or at the very least, changes the expectations that a viewer may have before seeing the movie.