Only the most incurious of American expats must fail, upon exiting a cinema or flipping off the late-nite movie on TV, to wonder what it is that happens to the nameplate on film reels as they travel from Hollywood USA, cross the Atlantic waters, and land in Europe. Why is it that some nameplates arrive just as they were, while others have been altered or in some cases entirely transformed? Who are these demented film fairies who leave complicated and culturally-contextual titles unchanged but then choose to rework those consisting of a single word? And why are some titles translated literally, while others reveal an interpretive flourish? That this nomenclature be madness is sure, yet is there a method in it?
Thinking induction might provide the beginnings of some answers, I decided to indulge my inner-Linnaeus and devise a classification scheme that best fit my sample of film titles, which consisted of all Academy Award-nominated films from the last 20 or so years (forgive the selection bias, but I wasn’t willing to take the time to generate the proper randomized list). In the end I constructed eight broad categories under which virtually all films seem to fall.
1. The Blissfully Unchanged (≈35 percent)
The most straightforward of designations, those films belonging in The Blissfully Unchanged category are just that, with not a letter off from the original title. This is perhaps surprisingly the largest category by far, comprising well over 30 of the 115 films I examined.
Examples: There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Good Night, and Good Luck, Shakespeare in Love, Pulp Fiction, Rain Man
2. (The) Disappearing Definite Article (≈5 percent)
Here one finds the interesting and rare case where the title is truncated to remove the definite article—the “the” in other words. One wonders how removing the definite article makes any difference whatsoever, and if it does, why the “the” is usually left alone.
Examples: Aviator, Insider, Sixth Sense
3. The Clarifying Tagline (≈15 percent)
One of more entertaining categories, these films possess a tagline—always in German—which seeks to educate audiences succinctly as to the subject matter that the original title evidently failed to reveal adequately.
Examples:, Seabiscuit - Mit dem Willen zum Erfolg (“With the Will For Success”), Lost in Translation - Zwischen den Welten (“Between the Worlds”), A Beautiful Mind - Genie und Wahnsinn (“Genius and Madness”), Fargo - Blutiger Schnee (”Bloody Snow”), Ghost - Nachricht von Sam (“Message from Sam”)
4. The Literal Translation (≈14 percent) To qualify for this category, titles had to be a perfect one-to-one translation with no deviation from the original. Thus, while Der Duft Der Frauen (“The Scent of Women”) is oh so close, it fails to pass muster and is relegated to the next category. One aspect worth noting is that novels (which have almost certainly already been translated into German) seem to have a higher probability of being translated literally. That Munich was retitled as München comes as little surprise.
Examples: Der Herr der Ringe (The Lord of the Rings), Sinn und Sinnlichkeit (Sense and Sensibility), Das Schweigen der Lämmer (The Silence of the Lambs), Feld der Träume (Field of Dreams)
5. The Proximate Translation (≈15 percent)
This category comes in two flavors: the understandable and the perplexing. That some titles are idiomatic and cannot be translated literally is clear, but sometimes the film fairies seem to tinker with titles for naught but their own glittery gratification. Four Weddings and a Funeral could, for example, be translated simply as “Vier Hochzeiten und ein Begräbnis,” a nice, literal rewrite. Instead, it was renamed Vier Hochzeiten und ein Todesfall, or “Four Weddings and a Fatality.”
Examples: Besser geht's nicht “It Doesn't Get Better" (As Good as It Gets), Der Soldat James Ryan (Saving Private Ryan), Ganz oder gar nicht “All or Absolutely Nothing” (The Full Monty), Der mit dem Wolf tanzt “He Dances with the Wolf” (Dances with Wolves)
6. The Clarifying Main Title Addition (≈4 percent)
A quasi combination of the categories 3 and 5 but nonetheless distinctive, the titles of these films seem to have been reworked not just to help audiences with the meaning of the title, but also to help further explain the film itself. (I too, by the way, cannot believe that Babe was nominated for an Oscar.)
L.A. Crash (Crash), Ein Schweinchen namens Babe “A Piglet Named Babe” (Babe), Wiedersehen in Howards End “Reunion in Howard’s End” (Howard’s End)
7. The Linguistic Mashup (≈6 percent)
Foreign words that are so well-known to Germans are sometimes incorporated into the German canon rather than being translated. The Pianist would be translated properly as “Der Klavierspieler,” but to German moviegoers it is known instead as Der Pianist.
Examples: Das Piano (The Piano), Die Queen (The Queen)
8. The Discrete Reimagining (≈9 percent)
Having become giddy after imbibing elderberry cordial a little too liberally, the film fairies are occasionally wont to display poetic hubris by transforming film titles into entirely new creations that bear no semblance to their respective forbears. This method would seem to be a last resort to others since it is such a dramatic change—and indeed it seems to be rare—but an explanation as to why any film would need a completely new German title fails me.
Examples: Wenn Träume Fliegen Lernen “When Dreams Learn To Fly” (Finding Neverland), Eine Frage der Ehre “A Question of Honor” (A Few Good Men) Gottes Werk & Teufels Beitrag “God’s Work & the Devil’s Due” (The Cider House Rules) Die Waffen der Frauen “The Weapons of Women” (Working Girl)
My classifications fit the data fairly tightly, but as I gaze over my lists in the urgent hunt for patterns within categories they are not forthcoming. For every example there is a counter-example, leading me to the despair of disorder. There is perhaps a temporal pattern, since it seems that newer films are more often left alone while older films are more often tampered with; meanwhile, German film fairies are also less likely to interfere than the Spanish or French. Nontheless, what method there may be still lies out of reach.
Perhaps the fairies have their reasons of which reason knows not.