Lost in Translation

While browsing through Netflix en français the other day, I saw the thumbnail for the BBC drama Call the Midwife. I was about to continue browsing when I noticed the French title:

SOS sages-femmes.

This struck me a  bit odd. Sure, une sage-femme is the French word for midwife (and quite a cool word too, literally meaning wise woman), but the SOS? In a period drama mixing light soap opera and social-realist representations of the difficulties of working-class East-End London life in the 1950s, it seems out of place. It’s too flippant, making me think of a children’s programme like Paw Patrol. Except with midwives on bicycles instead of puppies, and back-alley abortionists instead of whatever the puppies have to deal with (I’ve never seen Paw Patrol). So while in a literal sense, the title gets the content of the programme across, it doesn’t convey a sense of its tone at all. I appreciate that retitling TV shows and movies from English can be difficult, with titles often being clever plays on words that can’t easily be translated. But in this case, the title is simple and without subtext, so a direct translation (Appelez La Sage-Femme, which was the French title for the book the programme’s based on) would have worked fine. But clearly someone felt it needed to be jazzed up a bit, though I don’t know why they didn’t go all-in and add an exclamation mark at the end.

There are two general approaches to translating a title: translate it as directly as possible, or try to give a sense of what the programme or film is about. Mad Men provides two nice examples of this. Clearly, it’s nigh-on impossible to translate the meaning and subtext of the title, as it’s a play on the term ad men. So whoever came up with the Serbian title decided to keep it simple and call it Ljudi Sa Menhetna (People in Manhattan). Well, they sure are in Manhattan! But I think it’s fair to say that there’s a little more to the people in the series than that. In Russian, they decided to go for a direct translation, resulting in Безумцы (The Crazies). Which gives us one level of the meaning, sure, but it’s exactly representative of the programme.

By and large though, the describe-what-it’s-about-in-the-least-imaginative-way possible approach seems to be the most common. Lots of translations of House are a translation of Dr. House, I guess to make sure that people know it’s about a doctor and not, you know, a house. Though at least in this case, you’re not missing out on much of the poetry and subtlety of the title House.  And for comedies, there’s always the risk that some translator will just choose the situation or main character’s role, and put crazy before it. In Portuguese we then get 30 Rock (Um Maluco na TV – A Crazy on TV) and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Um Maluco no Pedaço – A Crazy in the Area).

I don’t mean to complain though, because it is a tricky business. Still, I wish the people making decisions on translating titles would put a bit more thought into how to capture the sense of the original title as much as possible (though they may wish to but have to fight against corporate executives with different ideas). I understand that they’re concerned with making sure people aren’t confused as to what programmes are about. And while the creators probably consider that too, they’re much more attached to their creation, and want to have a more artful title. Those deciding on the translation of course, don’t have that personal connection to the title.

Maybe it’s best to just let the programme go once it’s been sold abroad, and not worry about the title. Because the whole scripts will be translated too, and it’s not possible to translate all the dialogue perfectly too. Many of us have been in the situation where we know both the language of something we’re watching, and the language of its subtitles, perhaps for the benefit of a fellow viewer not fluent in the film’s language. Very often, they’re simplified, or rough approximations of what the characters are saying, and we get frustrated that people aren’t getting a complete sense of the dialogue. And subtitlers can make questionable decisions (I remember watching Christine on DVD many years ago with English subtitles, and the subtitler had written every single contraction out fully, e.g. don’t and can’t became do not and can not, which made it all bizarrely formal, considering most of the characters are teenagers). Still though, no matter how good the translation, it’ll never be the same as the original. So we either stick to languages we’re fluent in, and never expose ourselves to translations, or we accept that when we’re faced with a translation, we’re experiencing it differently from a native speaker, and that our version isn’t necessarily better or worse: just different.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that more and more programmes are keeping their English titles, so inexplicable translations, of titles at least, are probably on the decline. It’s not surprising, giving English’s global presence. And it matches the way that we haven’t tended to translate non-English titles of films and TV programmes in English-speaking countries, probably because there’s still a sense that foreign-language fare is sophisticated and artistic. Which is probably not how English titles are seen in other countries, but at least we won’t get confused when people ask us about Swim Quietly, Larry (Simma Lugnt, Larry, Curb your Enthusiasm in Swedish).

21 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. I once watched The Big Lebowski with Portuguese subtitles* and they had mistranslated ‘Eastern’ as ‘Easter’. So The Dude was asking The Stranger if his philosophical bear-line was an ‘Easter thing’. Which makes absolutely no sense in the context whatsoever, particularly as The Stranger’s response of course implies that it is a ‘Western thing’. It wasn’t bootlegged either, this was on the official DVD.

    *by ‘once’, I mean countless times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even more than a play on “ad men,” the title of the series “Mad Men” is a play on New York’s Madison Avenue — according to the often-reliable Wikipedia, “[s]ince the 1920s, the street’s name has been metonymous with the American advertising industry. Therefore, the term ‘Madison Avenue’ refers specifically to the agencies, and methodology of advertising.” Famously, Mad Magazine — which mercilessly lampooned advertising culture — was also located on MADison Avenue.

    That’s a lot of layers of meaning to translate, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Even if a universal translator could be programmed with the meaning of idioms (and online translators like Google Translate, while still far from perfect, are much better in that regard now), what about the specific cultural aspects of language? How do you translate words for feelings that we don’t have in English? How do you get across the specific cultural and historical factors that provide specific connotations to words and phrases? Of course that’s not always impossible, so translation will always miss something of the essence of the original language. […]


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