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Movie Titles Lost in Translation

Fact: Superbad is called Supercool in Mexico, Argentina, and Peru. 

Photo by Etc289

It goes without saying that no one language translates word for word into another language and then back again without losing (or sometimes gaining) a new meaning along the way. This is true for Spanish, which shares a subject-verb-object word order with English. It is especially true for translations to and from unrelated languages such as Chinese, which functions very different grammatically from what we might be used to.

How many of us have attempted to follow the directions printed in one of the pitifully humorous owner’s manuals accompanying our foreign-produced electronic items; or perhaps had a good long chuckle over a poorly worded English sign in a Chinatown store window? This is partly due to a lack of cultural exposure as well as miscalculations pertaining to the subtleties of either language. It is also due to fundamentally different functionalities of vocabulary and grammar in both languages.

There is a very real and understandable reason why translating the recently coined term “Superbad” into Spanish and then back into English produces a completely different English term. What we are seeing here, linguistic causes aside, is simply a game of “telephone” as it pans out in the real world of language translation, where we start with the concept of “bad” and end up with the concept of “cool” – whether in a temperature sense or (as one would presume in this case) hinting at a certain “coolness” factor, traditionally attributed to rebels or “bad” boys.

Take the title of any famous work of pop culture from the past however many years and translate it into another language according to the cultural understandings and experiences of the translators. Then translate the new foreign title back into English. You will begin with Boogie Nights and finish with a very accurate Mandarin Chinese title that doesn’t quite communicate the subtlety inherent in the original. Who wouldn’t want to rush to the cinema to see His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous? Or take out The Full Monty DVD or see that the title has suddenly changed to Six Naked Pigs? One has to admit that the poetic title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is lost on the Italian translation of If You Leave Me, I Delete You, and the somewhat laconic The Matrix is slightly less so when it becomes The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses in France.

These little mistranslations are what make our world of languages so special – meanings associated to words or phrases in one, will simply never be the same in any other. Find more about a few Spanish oddities specifically in our True or False video on Latin American Spanish!