Sunday, October 4, 2009

Without translation

My wife and I were watching the brilliant Spanish language thriller Sin Nombre last night, directed by the tongue-twister-named Cary Joji Fukunaga, when a question occurred to me:

Why are some films marketed in English-speaking territories with their original titles, while others are marketed with the titles translated to English?

Sin Nombre literally means "without name" in English. So why do I know this movie as Sin Nombre rather than Without Name, or Nameless? And who decides?

Don't get me wrong, I prefer Sin Nombre. But I just don't understand the system, or whether there even is a system. It could be case by case, or there could be a rule of thumb.

For one, I would imagine the title would be translated if there's a good chance an English audience would stumble over it. Let's take the excellent French thriller that we know as With a Friend Like Harry ... The French title for this movie is actually Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien. Now, only two of those words are even more than one syllable. But most American wouldn't know what the hell to do with this title -- they wouldn't know which letters are silent (for the record, it's the s and the t), whether Qui was "kee" (which it is) or "kwee" (which it is not) or "kwigh" (which it is also not), or why the comma appears in a spot they're not used to seeing it. What's more, With a Friend Like Harry ... is not actually a literal translation of the title, which would be something more like (excuse my rusty French) Harry, A Friend Who Wants You Well. Even if that's not exactly it, it's close enough to show you how a literal translation doesn't work either. (Incidentally, the original English translation they used when showing the film at festivals was Harry, He's Here to Help).

But the ones that puzzle me are the ones where the original title would not be that difficult to pronounce. Take one of my all-time favorite movies, Run Lola Run. In the original German, the film is called Lola Rennt, or, quite literally, "Lola Runs." Or at least, that's what I thought it quite literally meant. Oddly enough, when I looked up the word "rennt" in a German-English dictionary online, the closest it could give me was "renntag," which means "race day." Well in any case, Lola Rennt should be something even the dumbest American can pronounce, because it's pronounced almost exactly how it looks. Even the dumbest American won't be thrown off by the extra n in a word that is very familiar to them.

So that rules out pronunciation/ease of saying the title as the sole factor. Clearly, there's a desire to convey meaning as well. I would not expect anyone who doesn't speak German to get that "rennt" has anything to do with running, even though Franka Potente is running on the poster. So Run Lola Run works much better in that sense. However, I have such respect for the film that when I reviewed it years ago for my website -- one of the top five films I've ever gotten to review in terms of my personal affection for it -- I listed it on first reference as "Lola Rennt (known in the U.S. as Run Lola Run)." I'm sure it's known as Run Lola Run in other places than just the U.S., but this was the fourth film I ever reviewed for this site, and perhaps I was a bit nervous. (Though I do still like the review, even nine years later).

Part of the reason the title needs to convey more about Run Lola Run is that it's a high-concept film. Most people know going in that it's a movie that occurs in "real time" (more or less), that it has a repeating "choose your own adventure" narrative structure, and that it involves a lot of running. This knowledge was, in fact, key to why most people wanted to see it.

Not so with Sin Nombre, and that's probably why it got to keep its original title. In fact, I didn't know a thing about it -- other than that my friend really liked it -- before I popped it in. Neither translation of the title conveys much about the actual plot -- it might just as well be called Egg Salad Sandwich for all it prepares you for the movie you are going to see. Not that it's an inappropriate title, either -- it's just the kind of title that makes more sense to you after you've seen it than before. To be sure, there are other factors in it keeping its name, such as the fact that many Americans speak a little Spanish anyway, and Sin Nombre sounds infinitely more deep and poetic than Without Name.

Just as Y Tu Mama Tambien sounds so much more high-minded and sophisticated than And Your Mother Too.

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