Foreign Films, English Titles.

Nicolas Rapold at the NY Times discusses (archived) the issue of what to call foreign-language films in English:

Distributors say the title can be the first impression a movie makes on prospective audiences, and so they give it a great deal of thought. How do you translate the original title? Do you add a word or two to clarify? Or do you leave the Spanish or Korean or French as is?

Titles have been a consideration at least since the influx of foreign films in the 1950s and ’60s. When a title sticks, it has a way of enduring: it’s hard to imagine Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” being translated as simply “The Adventure.” The cryptic title “The 400 Blows” didn’t prevent people enjoying that film’s riches. (It’s a reference to a French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups,” commonly rendered as “to raise hell.”)

The Korean title for “Parasite” was essentially the same word, and more often than not, a straightforward translation makes sense, said Richard Lorber, the president of Kino Lorber, a major distributor of international films.

But occasionally a title is changed for clarity. The French coming-of-age drama “Water Lilies” (2008) had a completely different French title for its romantic story centered on three teenage girls who swim at the same pool. The original name translated as “Birth of the Octopuses.” “It’s a tricky title,” Lorber said. […]

Sometimes a translation or alteration of any sort is unnecessary. The 2020 Brazilian thriller “Bacurau,” another Kino Lorber release, is named after the fictional town where the action takes place.

And an English translation may not capture the full meaning of the more evocative original. The title of Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 “Volver” (“to come back” in Spanish) was not translated for its U.S. release by Sony Pictures Classics, unlike, say, his 1999 drama “All About My Mother.” (Almodóvar’s name recognition no doubt aided the profiles of both films.) […]

The five-season hit series “Money Heist” received a makeover from the original Spanish, which translated as “The House of Paper,” while the dystopian thriller “The Platform” was originally “El Hoyo” (“The Hole”). But for a number of foreign features it has acquired, Netflix leaves their lyrical titles more or less intact: “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Atlantics” (tweaked from the French, “Atlantique”), “I Lost My Body.” (A Netflix representative declined to comment.)

Carlos Gutiérrez of Cinema Tropical, a nonprofit that specializes in presenting Spanish-language cinema, saw a shift in titles at the turn of the millennium.

“I think ‘Amores Perros’ opened up the door that it was cool to leave a title in Spanish,” Gutiérrez said of the 2000 film from the future Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”). Shortly thereafter, “Y Tu Mamá También” was released to widespread acclaim, opening up more doors. […]

Once in a while, a film openly adopts an established title but puts its appeal to entirely fresh uses. Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2019) is a mind-expanding riff on film noir that features an hourlong sequence shot in a single take and rendered in 3D.

Despite the name, it’s not an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play. Adding to the mystique, the film’s Mandarin-language title echoes that of a Roberto Bolaño story. “Everybody sort of scratched their head,” Lorber said of the O’Neill reference. “But Bi Gan just liked that play, and he liked the name, and he just wanted to go with it. And the film stood out on its own.”

More examples at the link. As I said here about Godard’s first full-length movie:

I called it Breathless, but its French title is À bout de souffle, which literally means ‘out of breath’; I used to be mildly annoyed by the slightly-off translation, but I’ve come to realize that Breathless makes a far better movie title, so good for whoever made the change.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Ikiru, one of the half-dozen best movies ever made, seems always to be sold under its Japanese title, unike most other Kurosawa films. (Rashomon is a placename, so doesn’t count, and one can see why Kagemusha was left in Japanese. But I suppose there is also Ran …)

  2. Y Tu Mamá También was a huge international hit; there was even a Bulgarian theme song for the film by a popular rap group: “И твой’та майка също” which is a literal translation of the title.

  3. I’m reminded of the book (and later, movie) Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which was originally published in the UK as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It quickly became a bestseller in the US and (I think) was later reissued in the UK with the US title.

    [That it was not published with the Danish title goes without saying, Danish not being a real language and all, as I have learned from this blog]

  4. Quite so. “Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne” is clearly gibberish, just a cut above “Bork, bork, bork.”

  5. “Danish not being a real language”

  6. Wikipedia claims that the 1992 Mexican film Como agua para chocolate was released in the US as Like Water for Chocolate, but I clearly remember TV ads referring to it as Coe Moe Aw Gwaw Paw Raw Choke-a-Latte.

  7. David Marjanović says


    Danish is surreal.

  8. TIL about Ikiru: In the United States, the film was shown for a short time in California in 1956, under the title Doomed. It opened as Ikiru in New York City on 29 January 1960.

    Manbiki kazoku 万引き家族 (“Shoplifter family”) was called Shoplifters in English but Une affaire de famille in French. Presumably the marketing teams had different assumptions about what would appeal to Anglophone and Francophone audiences.

    English titles used for recent foreign films that I find irritating include Girlhood (Bande de filles — presumably the marketing team thought audiences would flock to a gender-swapped version of Boyhood, but the film is nothing of the kind) and Asako I & II (Nete mo samete mo 寝ても覚めても, “Asleep and awake” — you could write an interesting essay exploring the idea that the film is about two different versions of Asako, but it is a terrible title for the film itself).

  9. In the United States, the film was shown for a short time in California in 1956, under the title Doomed.

    Man, what a terrible title. Thank goodness they decided to go with the Japanese!

  10. “Danish is surreal.”

    There was some song in early Internet times (absolutely not famous. Just some band from St.Petersburg that played songs with tunes from European folk of 70s – Breton, Irish, English etc – and their own lyrics. I liked the musicians but only a few of their songs) that began:

    я искал тебя в сети и в реале / ты нереальная, я виртуал,
    “I sought you in the net and in the reál / you’re unreal(fem), I’m a virtuál”, and further

    разве я раньше не говорил / синее небо – это анрил
    “didn’t I say it before? / the blue sky is анрил”


    the reál is the material world as discussed by inhabitants of the Internet, as in “let’s meet in the reál” and is still in use, and

    a virtuál is a virtual character: when your forum personage has totally different personality traits (and possibly sex, age and history) from your own. We often discussed such virtual characters in 90s, and people were supposed to have many of them, but in reality (not to be confused with the reál) they were uncommon.
    Much more often people referred to somethign like “drasvi” as “my virtual character” to refer to jokular emotions (like: mock anger) wishes and opinions (“no, I don’t want it, but my virtual character does”).
    Actually, a useful concept: “drasvi” behaves differently here than I behave elsewhere (on other forums).

    анрил is the English word “unreal” (vaguely known from English and better known as a title of some video game).

  11. One concept that annoys me in sociolinguistics is “prestige langauge”. It annoys me, because a shift to it is attributed to “prestige” while “prestige variety” is the variety people shift to.

    In this sense, Spanish is a funny thing, because it is associated among other things with immigrants (specifically poor groups of economic migrants), but (unlike Tajik in Moscow) attracts a lot of interest among speakers of English and certainly exerts influence.

  12. IMHO, the very worst title in translation is “Turtles can Fly.”

    This 2004 Kurdish-language film, about children in a border refugee camp on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is one of the most emotionally devastating works of art in any medium that I know. Made with non-actor refugee children, it’s an almost unbearable story of the suffering of innocents.

    The title – literally translated from Kurdish – has no connection to the story and apparently it’s not an aphorism or allusion. The director has discussed its meaning but his explanation makes little sense to an English-speaking viewer.

    I’ve talked up this movie frequently and the reaction is always, “that’s those ninja turtles?” Then you tell them it’s an art film in Kurdish about the horrors of war and you sound like an ass. It’s impossible to get past the ninja turtles for anyone who grew up or had children between 1980 and 2010.

    It’s incomprehensible to me that an American distribution company in 2004 wouldn’t have said, “No Turtles!!!”

  13. Yes, that’s bizarre — even worse than “Birth of the Octopuses.”

  14. But is “Birth of the Octopuses” so much more “bizarre” in English than in French?

    French WP in Google Translate:

    Birth of Octopuses is Céline Sciamma’s first film. It is based on the Fémis end-of-study exam script passed by Sciamma, and which Xavier Beauvois, then a member of the jury, encouraged to develop for a feature film[4].

    The title of the film is directly inspired by the novel Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc [ref. necessary] in which the octopus symbolizes the invasion of desire emerging from the entrails and the grip of the feeling of love that arises between the two protagonists. According to the director, the bizarre title of the film can be explained as follows: “For me, the octopus is this monster which grows in our belly when we fall in love, this maritime animal which releases its ink in us. This is what happens to my characters in the film, three teenage girls, Marie, Anne and Floriane. And precisely, the octopus has the particularity of having three hearts. The “birth of octopuses” is therefore the birth of love at the age of adolescence[5].

    Thérèse et Isabelle (novel)
    Therese and Isabelle (film)

  15. French pieuvre ‘octopus’ (from Guernsey Norman pieuvre, introduced or popularized by Victor Hugo) is from Latin polypus < πολύπους.

  16. Maybe “birth of the octopuses” was nixed to avoid putting off the octopi lobby.

  17. Only in the last couple of years have I seen Indian movies, very few of them, with English titles. Otherwise they are distributed in the West with their original titles. I wonder, though, if, say, Telugu films get Hindi titles for intra-India distribution.

  18. The worst “foreign” title translation I know of (and there are plenty of awful ones) is the 1998 Swedish movie “Fucking Åmål” (Which I adored and strongly recommend: it is one of the two most brutally realistic stories about teen love I have ever seen on screen), which in the Anglosphere was “translated” as…”Show me love” (A title which to me suggests some sappy feel-good story, which this movie definitely is NOT).

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I get the impression that foreigners do not always correctly judge the degree of offensiveness that “fucking” has to most L1 speakers, so that as a loanword it actually doesn’t quite mean “fucking.” (I agree that “Show Me Love” is scarcely a happy naming solution, though.) It’s not easy to get this right in a foreign language, especially one you learnt in school (there are, in the other direction, doubtless Anglophones who are under the serious misapprehension that foutre means “fuck” and con means “cunt.”)

    Mike Meyers, on the other hand, probably knows perfectly well that “shag” is much ruder in UKanian than most Americans appreciate.

  20. The not-sweet-by-any-means Baise-moi was mercifully left untranslated.

  21. “do not always correctly judge the degree of offensiveness that “fucking” has to most L1 speakers”

    Well, we base our impression on this.

  22. When I type покажи (“show!”) in Google, it offers me exclusively links with a line “show me love”. Most of them are a song (with a male rapper among female thighs on the cover) and one is the film. Two songs. The one with thighs is just recent but… less popular.

  23. David Marjanović says

    For me, the octopus is this monster which grows in our belly when we fall in love, this maritime animal which releases its ink in us.


  24. Show Me Love” is best known as the one* major single by Robin S. It’s been a standard for house music airplay for more than three decades now. (There is also evidently another 1997 song with the same name by an otherwise-unknown-to-me Swedish pop artist, Robyn. Presumably this sometimes leads to confusion.)

    * Apparently, Robin S. had another single that was a top-ten hit in the Low Countries, the even-housier “Luv 4 Luv,” but I have no recollection of it, and it never cracked the Top 40 in America.

  25. @David Marjanović: I was going to post a link to the opening credits of the James Bond film Spectre, as demonstration that for some people, octopus ink can be a powerful metaphor for bullets and jizz. However, it appears that the currently available versions of the film have changed the angle of the CG gunfire, so that Daniel Craig’s octopus-enwrapped pistol is less obviously shooting sepia semen. Fittingly, I supposed, the change occurs just when the editor’s credit is on screen.

  26. There is a very nice, calming French documentary called “Être et avoir” about a small school and its schoolchildren. It appeared as “To be and to have” in America, which I think is a reasonable choice, even though it obviously loses a little something. I see now on Wikipedia that it was released under its original title in the UK; maybe makes sense for a country neighboring France.

    I always remember that it was released in Turkey under the title “Olmak ve sahip olmak” which struck me (admittedly, not a native speaker) as terrible. Turkish doesn’t really have a word for ‘to have’, so it sort of sounds like “To be and to be an owner” — yuck! Doesn’t convey the schoolkid vibe. I suppose a native speaker might just see it as “To be and to own”, though, which I suppose isn’t awful.

  27. Être et avoir can’t be literally translated into Hbrew (it doesn’t have a have.) So it was renamed פעלים למתחילים pealim lematkhilim ‘Verbs for Beginners’.

  28. calming French documentary called “Être et avoir” about a small school …

    Oaahh, that was just delightful. In New Zealand, both the French and English titles were given equal billing. It was probably via UK distributors, but I’m shocked … shocked! how little French is recognised in NZ. Our local farmers’ market has a (allegedly) French bakery — good luck asking for pain-au-chocolat vs ‘Chocolate Croissant’ — and make sure to sound the ‘t’s at the end of both words gnaa.)

    I guess in NZ schooling there’s less relevance for learning French than Māori or Japanese or Mandarin; but the French did try to colonise the South Island and there’s plenty of French-named places. (Their pronunciation gets murdered: Duvauchelle, d’Urville Island.)

  29. “French pieuvre ‘octopus’ (from Guernsey Norman pieuvre, introduced or popularized by Victor Hugo) is from Latin polypus < πολύπους."

    "Ces yeux voyaient Gilliatt.

    Gilliatt reconnut la pieuvre.”

    And then the chapter about le monstre (French) the monster (English). Impressive indeed. Also Hugo’s own picture. In INK.

    This passage created a problem for the English translator:

    “Ce monstre est celui que les marins appellent poulpe, que la science appelle céphalopode, et que la légende appelle kraken. Les matelots anglais l’appellent Devil-Fish, le Poisson-Diable. Ils l’appellent aussi Blood-Sucker, Suceur de sang. Dans les îles de la Manche on le nomme la pieuvre.”

    Which he solved: “It is the English sailors, who…”.

  30. Sadly, writers of today can’t describe an animal in such a scary way that it will hold people’s imagination two centuries later in its tentacles, making them write things like what DM quoted above….

  31. Wiktionary says Italian piovra is from French pieuvre (Hugo again). La piovra was extremely popular in USSR and both the Mafia and Commissioner Corrado Cattani entered our folklore (at least in the form of a party game Mafia that has a character “Commissioner” or “Commissioner Cattani”). I did not know that it continued into 2000s. In 90s there were other distractions.

    But it is quite convenient that Russians too have two words, one of them neutral and the other scary: sprut. < English "sprout" says Wiktionary, but is it attested in English?
    Danish blæksprutte, Norvegian blekksprut make sense.

  32. is it attested in English?

    G translate gives спрут > octopus; I can find nothing giving English sprout/sprut any sense of marine creature.

    S.Afr/Dutch spruit “a small, deepish watercourse”.

    scary Yes Brussels sprouts are scary the way they’re served in typical British fare: boiled until indistinguishable from the water in the pan.

  33. A curious English word I came upon in the OED a while ago when looking into the origin of the word kraken:

    preke, n.

    Pronunciation: Brit. /priːk/, U.S. /prik/
    Forms: 1600s peake (perhaps transmission error), 1600s–1900s preak, 1600s–1800s preke…
    Etymology: Origin unknown.
    Now historical.
      An octopus; a cuttlefish.
    1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues
    Poulpe,..the Pourcontrell, Preke, or many-footed fish.
    1639 S. Du Verger tr. J.-P. Camus Admirable Events 18
    Love is like honour, unto the Pourcontrell, or Peake [sic] fish, who becomes of the same colour the things are, whereon it fastens.
    1681 N. Grew Musæum Regalis Societatis i. v. iv. 121
    The Preke or Poulps, Polypus.
    1693 T. Urquhart & P. A. Motteux tr. F. Rabelais 3rd Bk. Wks. xiii. 108
    You are likewise to abstain from Beans, from the Preak, (by some called the Polyp) [Fr. poulpe (qu’on nomme Polype)].
    a1717 W. Diaper tr. Oppian Halieuticks (1722) i. 21
    The pois’nous Creeper, and the changing Preke The secret Caverns of the Ocean seek.
    1759 Philos. Trans. 1758 (Royal Soc.) 50 778
    The Polypus, particularly so called, the Octopus, Preke, or Pour-contrel.
    1841 Penny Cycl. XXI. 250/2
    Octopus… This is the Eight-armed Cuttle of Pennant; the Poulp or Preke of the English.
    1894 Evening Standard 10 Jan. 1/1
    Oppians account of the capture of the precke and sargo.
    1996 Catching Stories 70
    My father, my grandfather, all the fishermen, we used to call them preaks. ‘We caught a preak last night.’ We used to turn ’em inside out and throw ’em away.

  34. Speaking of Hirokazu Koreeda, the writer and director of Shoplifters mentioned above, his deeply moving 1995 film entitled 幻の光 Maboroshi no Hikari (based on a novel of the same name by Teru Miyamoto) was distributed internationally as Maborosi.

    As the title for an American film intended for an international audience but having a name in a language not understood by almost all its viewership, Koyaanisqatsi has always impressed me as a masterly stroke—like the film itself, a jolt, a provocation of viewers, an alienation from their own alienated state. I wonder how the makers of the film arrived at the title. Was it chosen before or after the score with its setting of Hopi texts was written?

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    Were these octopuses typically spotted? There is Irish breac (“spotted” or “trout”), Welsh brych (“spotted”), brychog (“trout”). Compare Latin perca for “perch”.

  36. Pourcontrell, says the OED, is a misreading of pourcouttell or such. The couttell part is the same as in cuttlefish. The pour part is not understood.

    The English Dialect Dictionary has a section of “words for the present kept back from the want of further information”. That includes pod-lihker ‘octopus’ (Cornwall).

  37. Well, we base our impression on this.

    Well, YT tells me I may not watch this unless I confirm my age by signing in (there was a time when you didn’t have to do this, and I didn’t have to confirm my age when I bought the blu-rays, either).

    I based my impressions on this and this and this.

  38. Trond Engen says

    drasvi: Danish blæksprutte, Norvegian blekksprut make sense.

    Yes. Grunnmanuskriptet (Norw. lexicography ca. 1900) knows blekksprute f. and sprute f. but not sprut m.

    Store norske leksikon (the National Encyclopedia) to the rescue:

    Akkar er en art av blekksprut i ordenen Theutoidea. Navnet kommer av akka, et gammelt ord for pil.*

    UTTALE ˈakkar
    OGSÅ KJENT SOM sprut, akker, ankertroll
    ETYMOLOGI etter akka, et gammelt ord for ‘pil’
    VITENSKAPELIG NAVN Todarodes sagittatus
    BESKREVET AV (Lamarck, 1799)

    My translation:
    The European flying squid is a species of squid in the order Theutoidea. The name comes from akka, an old word for arrow.*

    ALSO KNOWN AS sprut, akker, ankertroll
    ETYMOLOGY after akka, et gammelt ord for ‘pil’
    SCIENTIFIC NAME Todarodes sagittatus
    DESCRIBED BY (Lamarck, 1799)

    * This is the first time I see this etymology. Another etymology points to Sw. dial. akka “defecate”. I’m not convinced either way,

  39. Trond Engen says

    Y: The couttell part is the same as in cuttlefish.

    My searches also turned up:

    kaule I. f. (blekk)sprute (Roms), Å. Vel av *koðla; sml. ags. cudele f., d.s. Avl. av kodde. T.

    My translation:
    kaule I. f. “(blekk)sprute” (Romsdal). Presumably from *koðla; comp. OE cudele f., “id.”. Derived from kodde [=> ‘cod’]

  40. Calling something a “European flying squid” is egregious false advertising. My brothers and I conceived of many interesting fictional squid varieties (for a while it was something of a family hobby)—including, in no particular order:

    desert squid, tree (or arboreal) squid, majestic squid, two-toed squid, Boom-Boom the Squid, avenger squid, maimed squid, mafia squid, lowland squid, and horsehair squid.

  41. A title which to me suggests some sappy feel-good story, which this movie definitely is NOT

    I haven’t seen it, but Wikipedia describes it as a “romantic comedy drama film”, and no one dies or gets brutally tortured, so by 2020 standards it seems fairly light and upbeat.

    The biggest problem with the “Fucking Amal” title is that most English speakers would expect a film with that name to include a sexual relationship between the protagonist and someone named “Amal”. In isolation I read “fucking” as the verb, not the modifier. Maybe people with a better knowledge of Swedish geography would not have that issue – “fucking Stockholm”, or “fucking Malmö” don’t present the same ambiguity. “Amal sucks!” might be a better translation.

  42. January First-of-May says

    French pieuvre ‘octopus’ (from Guernsey Norman pieuvre, introduced or popularized by Victor Hugo) is from Latin polypus < πολύπους.

    …TIL. I vaguely knew полип (polyp?) as some kind of archaic word for a tentacled sea animal (though in Monday Begins on Saturday it’s an unspecified voice-affecting ailment instead), but somehow never realized that it literally meant “many-legged”.

    “ПОЛИПЪ — древнiе называли такъ каракатицу или спрута” [i.e. “POLYP – ancients called such a cuttlefish or sprut”] – Dahl’s dictionary (2nd ed., volume 3, p. 268, says Wikisource), as quoted in Kaganov’s Масло (“Butter”) [previously on LH].

  43. it’s an unspecified voice-affecting ailment

    Vocal-chord polyps?

  44. Lars Mathiesen says

    voice-affecting ailment: “A tumorous, usually pedunculated, growth on the mucous membrane of the nasal cavity” is (næse-)polyp in Denmark. I had some taken out when I was seven or eight. The trope is that kids with polyps say ponypper instead.

    I don’t know what the science facts are, but 50-60 years ago many kids were diagnosed with the nasal ones; I may have heard of vocal chord ones afflicting singers, but they were not the bread and butter of rhinology practices.

  45. Historically, polyp or polypus (both recorded in English circa 1400; French forms with the same meaning start appearing around 1250) meant a growth in specifically the respiratory passages. However, while nasal polyps are still a pretty ordinary medical problem, inflammatory polyps seemed to be mentioned now much more often in connection with the digestive system. The are at least two reasons why this change in focus makes sense. First, medieval and early modern physicians were able to see and operate a lot more on the nasal passages of living patients than on their colons; that’s no longer true today. Second, intestinal polyps are often pre-cancerous, and given that colon cancer is a major killer in the developed world, it makes sense for physicians to pay close attention to those intestinal polyps.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    There is a nasty blinding eye condition traditionally called “polypoidal retinopathy.” In accordance with the age-old tradition of medical disease-naming, it is not a retinopathy and does not involve any polyps, but otherwise the name is fine.

  47. John Cowan says

    It doesn’t even seem to involve any polypoids (which I suppose are a supertype of cthulhoids).

  48. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time” featured some kind of spectral “flying polyps,” which were not the same as Cthulhu’s race. There is very little about them in the primary sources, although I assume they have been extensively fleshed out in fan fiction.

  49. François Etienne says

    Translating film titles
    I used to give the following extra-credit question on French exams. “For an A for the semester, translate the following film title into English: ‘Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ ” (The Avengers)

  50. That’s a good one; I’m also fond of La Chevauchée fantastique (Stagecoach).

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir is frankly a much better title.

  52. ‘Melon hat and bottles of cure,’ obvs.

  53. ‘Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ ” (The Avengers)
    In Germany it ran as Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone “With umbrella, charm, and bowler hat”, which emphasized the British whackiness element of the show, like the French title.

  54. In some American markets it was called “Bumbershoot .45”

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone

    It seems a pity to omit the bottes de cuir, especially for those of us with fond memories of Honor Blackman in the vastly superior original.

  56. It seems a pity to omit the bottes de cuir
    I guess that would have caused the wrong kind of associations in 60s Germany…

  57. PlasticPaddy says

    Maybe wellies should be called blüchies…

  58. I have but one word to say: Excellent!

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