ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

If you've spent any time abroad, one of the first things you might notice is that movies aren't always called the same the world over. In fact, sometimes, they're given rather bizarre and strange new 'translated' names.

The actual subtitles or dubbing in the movie might not be much better either, with The Avengers: Age of Ultron recently coming under fire for the poor quality of its Chinese translation. So what's going on here? Why is it so hard to translate a movie?

Well, Dan Nosowitz of AtlasObscura wanted to find out why so many American and English-language films receive such poor translations elsewhere in the world. The main reason, he discovered, had to do with everyone's old friend, money.

How Do Movies Get Lost in Translation?

Batman: El Caballero de la Noche, or Batman: Knight of the Night.
Batman: El Caballero de la Noche, or Batman: Knight of the Night.

Localization, or the process of adapting work from one language to another, is a big business, not just in movies, but also in video games, literature and sometimes even music.

However, in recent years the industry has gone under some rather drastic changes, with high-paid professional translators now moving away from movies. Dean Remy, of GlobalVision International, a US-based translation company, claims skilled translators are now not paid enough to work on most movies, as generally they now only earn a penny for every word they translate.

However, to accurately and correctly translate a movie, it isn't simply a case of changing an English word for its foreign counterpart. Often, translating a movie means taking the meaning of an entire line of dialogue and then finding the right combination of foreign words which express that meaning clearest. One particular problem arises with English metaphors or turns of phase which are not literal. For example, AtlasObscura drew attention to one poorly translated line in the Chinese version of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The report, originally from The Hollywood Reporter, stated:

Mostly, the problem is that the translations in Age of Ultron are too literal. For example, when Captain America gives some advice by saying "You get hurt, hurt 'em back. You get killed... walk it off," it comes across in Chinese as "Run fast if someone tries to kill you.

Of course, this is not the sentiment Captain America or Joss Whedon wanted to get across.

This is the Danish version of Die Hard, not a porn parody
This is the Danish version of Die Hard, not a porn parody

One of the main issues is that studios are increasingly outsourcing the translation to so-called "translation sweatshops" in places such as China, Colombia and India. As well as the personnel often being not as well trained as freelance or in-house professionals, they also often rely on technology of questionable effectiveness. Despite this, they are a lot cheaper than keeping a professional translator on staff. For example, whereas an outsourced translator might charge one penny a word, a professional could charge up to a dollar.

These high-end translators do still exist though, and are usually reserved for certain big budget projects. For example, if a studio knows a film will perform well in a certain foreign market (such as a sci-fi action film in Asia) they may decide to pay out for a professional translator who can ensure quality in the final product. However, despite being adept at their art, they're not using it on art house films. Instead, expensive translators often work on fairly broad comedies such as Grown-Ups 2 and Hall Pass. As you can imagine, translating a comedy is especially tricky since various jokes need to be reworked for different cultures and their references. For this kind of work, translators could charge a few bucks per word.

How Do You Translate a Movie?

The German name for Airplane is: "The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Airplane"
The German name for Airplane is: "The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Airplane"

Translating a movie isn't simply changing one word for another, it's much more complex than that. For one thing, the translated dialogue or subtitles need to be about the same length as the original line of dialogue. This can cause issue with different languages which generally have different lengths of words. As Remy explains:

“If you go from English to, say, German or Russian, the text that has to be squeezed into that same segment of a movie has to really be jammed in there.”

To get around this, the original film is analyzed using a range of algorithms, creating a series of notations for each specific timestamp. The original transcript, with the same timestamps are then sent to the translator. Usually they'll have anywhere between 24 hours and a week to translate the transcript. The timestamps are particularly important because they show the amount of time each line of dialogue should run for.

Meet "Captain Supermarket" - The Japanese name for Army of Darkness
Meet "Captain Supermarket" - The Japanese name for Army of Darkness

Then there is the problem of English words which do not really have a foreign equivalent -- especially words and names created for specific films. For example, Remy explains how the simple line "I am Batman" can cause some issues. He explains:

"You try to translate that into German, there's probably five or six different ways you can do that. The most literal is ‘Ich bin Fledermausmensch,’ which means, literally, ‘I am the flying mouse man.’”

In this scenario, it was simpler to simply go for "Ich bin Batman," since Batman is a well-known enough character name. However, it isn't always this simple.

Then are are of course cultural and political issues. For example, some conservative countries will not be best pleased with certain words or phrases. The translator must often have to take this into account and try to convey the same meaning without taboo. It's for this reason that Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, was renamed in Malaysia, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Behaved Very Nicely Around Me.

Despite the criticisms of cheap translation, it doesn't seem to deter foreign viewers too much. For example, although Avengers: Age of Ultron's Chinese dubbing was slammed, it was still China's second biggest film opening ever.

Source: AtlasObscura


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