A FEW weeks ago my colleague wrote about the difficulties of translating Pushkin. But that isn't to say that low-brow stuff is easier to render. This seems to happen especially often with film titles.
Consider the 1989 film "K-9", a policeman-and-his-dog caper which is known variously as “Four-legged policeman” (Italy) and “My partner with the cold snout” (Germany). Puns, to be fair, are usually impossible to translate faithfully. But even simple titles sometimes undergo big changes—especially, it seems, in China, where "Free Willy" is known as “A very powerful whale runs to heaven”. ("Boogie Nights", wonderfully, is “His great device makes him famous”.)
Sometimes this tinkering is unwarranted: I imagine that the denouement of "Thelma and Louise" was rather spoiled for audiences in Mexico, where the film was known as “Thelma and Louise: an unexpected end”. And I was sad that, for Americans, Philip Pullman’s evocative "Northern Lights" became the tedious “Golden Compass”.
Often, though, one has no idea that the title one knows and loves has been dreamed up by a translator. When I arrived in Mexico I wanted something easy to practice my Spanish, so I went looking for “La chica con el tatuaje del dragón”, as I assumed Stieg Larsson’s thriller might be known. It isn’t: the title here is “Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres” (“The men who didn’t love women”).
What a rubbish name, I thought: why couldn’t Mexicans be given a direct translation? In fact, it’s English-speakers who have been duped: the original, in Swedish, is simply “Men who hate women”. (“It was considered too scary for foreign audiences, while just hitting the politically-correct spot in Sweden,” reckons my neighbourhood Swede.)
The meddling continues: the sequel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” in English, is faithful to the Swedish title, but in Spanish is needlessly elaborated as, “The girl who dreamed of a match and a can of petrol”. The third in the series—“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”, to us—is completely divorced from Swedish (“The air castle that exploded”). Here in Mexico, the same book is “The queen in the palace of the air currents”. Surely there’s an argument for a little less artistic licence?