Found in Translation: English to French Film Titles

by Craig Evans

Sometimes it’s the little differences that catch our attention most. On a visit to Paris at the weekend, I found this to be true of film posters where everything seemed just as it was back in London a few hours earlier, but not quite. Many of the film titles were different, and I don’t just mean that they were in French.

Take, for example, a poster for the recently released The Heat: the mean dishevelled look of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy staring out at me was familiar, but something didn’t seem quite right about the French title, Les Flingueuses.  For a start, despite my very poor French, I could tell that this is a plural form, where the English title is not.

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This was enough to pique my curiosity, and one Google search later, I found that ‘flingueurs’ translates as ‘gunslingers’. My guess is that the different suffix is being used to create a new female form of this word, with the intention of conveying the idea of a female take on something typically associated with males. In the case of this film, the new take is that of women featuring as the leads in a buddy cop comedy film, a sub-genre that in the past has been dominated by men.

This word-play (if indeed that is what’s occurring here) seems like a very effective way to communicate what is one of the biggest selling points of the film, much more so than the English title The Heat. Perhaps the reference of ‘heat’ is too culturally specific and might not be understood by a French audience to mean ‘police’. Most likely the change of title was probably less about cultural translation, and more about the French distributors realising that Les Flingueuses would have a greater commercial appeal.

This is not so with Les Schtroumpfs, those strange little blue characters who existed long before their second outing on the big screen.

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I’m afraid I must confess my anglocentric unworldliness in immediately jumping to the conclusion that the only reason to translate the name ‘Smurfs’ into ‘Schtroumpfs’ must be due to French phonology. Of course, I now know, after a little bit of googling, that ‘Schtroumpfs’ was in fact the original name as given by the original Belgian creator, and ‘Smurfs’ was its Dutch translation, which is the version that came to be used in English. I don’t know why we adopted ‘Smurf’ instead of ‘Schtroumpf’, but in such an important field as Smurf Studies, I’m sure researchers are trying to find the answers as I write.

It is easy to see the thinking behind the film title translation on the next poster I encountered:

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Le Dernier Pub Avant La Fin Du Monde  (The Last Pub Before the End of the World).

The English title is simply The World’s End. This title has a double meaning, referring to both the end of the world and the name of a pub. It is intended to encapsulate the film’s two main storylines, as revealed in the trailer: alien invasion and the reunion of a group of friends to complete a previously attempted pub crawl that has as its final destination a pub called ‘The World’s End’.

For a British audience familiar with the tradition of playful creativity and punning in the names of pubs, this double meaning is something that may be readily comprehended. However, the pun might easily be lost in translation. Comedy-seeking French cinema goers would surely be put off by the prospect of a bleak apocalyptic drama, which is what they could expect if the literal meaning of the title is all they have to go on. Hence, perhaps the reason for the translation: to clarify that the film is also about going to the pub, which means it probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

One last film poster to catch my attention did so because of the complete absence of any title translation:

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In France, the White House is known as ‘La Maison-Blanche’, so it seems that the French film distributors must have decided to leave the English untranslated in order to create a particular effect.  Judging by the title of the film and the image of an armed Channing Tatum in a white vest a la Bruce Willis (therefore probably playing an everyman), it seems likely that the film is about American heroism. No doubt this has informed the French film distributors’ decision not to translate the title, they perhaps realising that the Englishness (or more precisely, Americanness) of the sound and appearance of the words would better resonate with the theme of American identity and patriotism.

Well, these are a few of my thoughts about film title translations into French. It would be great to hear anybody else’s views on the subject.

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7 comments

  1. Craig, I noticed a similar thing – though it’s not the film title but “just” the motto. For the film RED 2 in English the eye catcher is “THE BEST NEVER REST” – nice and easy, it rhymes etc.
    In Czech, on the other hand, it looses all these nice features – “TI NEJLEPŠÍ NIKDY NESPÍ”. No matter whether you can read Czech or not – it’s clear enough that it doesn’t rhyme. Lost in translation, again!
    However, I don’t think this is a great movie anyway so it’s not such a disaster 🙂

  2. I’m still cringing at ‘Und täglich grüsst das Murmeltier’ (= and every day the groundhog greets us) for ‘Groundhog day’. What a good movie – but I never felt like watching it in Germany and only discovered it later, in Denmark, in the English version. Having said that, many English films are given outrageous titles in Danish, too…

  3. Haha, what a coincidence Jeanette! Groundhog Day in Czech rhymes! Na Hromnice o den více and it makes a good title in my opinion 🙂

  4. Some great examples! I wonder whether the translators actually watch the films beforehand. It’s interesting that the German translation for ‘Groundhog Day’ seems to be trying to describe what the film is about, whereas an English audience would be clueless based on the title alone. Perhaps titles aren’t that important (e.g. RED 2 -????). Taglines on the other hand can really fix the idea of a film in your mind: Don’t go in the water (Jaws); in space no one can hear you scream (Alien). Maybe the Czech translator had seen RED 2 and decided to rest his / her best tagline efforts for when a better film comes along 🙂

  5. Sure, that’s a good point, Craig, that ‘the groundhog greets every day’ is what the film is about. But the title as such is not really enticing people to go and watch the movie… (whereas a title like “RED 2” sounds much more interesting, actually) 🙂

  6. Oh, I agree! About the German Groundhog Day title, that is. As for RED 2, it seems more like a computer game title, but then maybe that’s what sells. My theory is that film titles themselves probably don’t entice people much, at least not in the way that taglines, trailers, and film stars do. However, they can definitely put people off. Take, for example, ‘The Constant Gardener’. The film itself is a critically acclaimed gripping thriller, but the title would suggest otherwise.

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