What did you think of the film adaptation of John-le-Carré’s “Queen, King, Ace, Spy” (“König, Dame, Ass, Spion”)? Never heard of it? Chances are you have! It’s the back translation of the German title of the 2011 movie „Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy“ with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. It’s also a nice example of the pitfalls of movie title localization. Granted, the nursery rhyme “Tinker, Tailor” is not commonly known in Germany and the deck of cards pun works quite well for a spy story. Were it not for the 1998 movie “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” that came to German movie theatres as “Jack, Queen, King, Weed” (“Bube, Dame, König, Gras“). Or 1972′s “King, Queen, Jack” (“König, Dame, Bube”), the German title for the Nabokov book and movie “King, Queen, Knave”. You would think that there are more than one puns and word plays in the German language.
In 1983 the Steve Martin movie “The Lonely Guy” was distributed in Germany as “A Single Seldom Comes Alone” (“Ein Single kommt selten allein”) – a rather senseless movie title adaptation that immediately became the magic weapon for all untranslatable movie titles. There was “A Twin Seldom Comes Alone” (“Ein Zwilling kommt selten allein“, original title: “The Parent Trap“), “Martians – An Alien Seldom Comes Alone” (“Martians – Ein Außerirdischer kommt selten allein“, original title: “Spaced Invaders”), “A Duke Seldom Comes Alone” (“Ein Duke kommt selten allein“, original title: “The Dukes of Hazzard“), “A Brat Seldom Comes Alone” (“Eine Zicke kommt selten allein“, original title: “Uptown Girls”), “A Ghost Seldom Comes Alone” (“Ein Geist kommt selten allein“, original title: “Believe”). In 2004 the meme rose from the dead once more as “A Zombie Seldom Comes Alone” (“Ein Zombie kommt selten allein“, original title: “Shaun of the Dead“). Other unfortunate German movie title translations are the infamous “My Partner with the Cold Snout” (“Mein Partner mit der kalten Schnauze“, original title: “K9“), “I Think an Elk is Kissing Me” (“Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch“, original title: “Stripes”) or my all time favourite “Red Eagle” (“Black Eagle“).
Imitative movie titles are common in China as well – sometimes with bizarre results. Jim Carrey’s movie “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” was a huge success in China. The character name “Ace Ventura” was translated as 王牌 (referring to the playing card king). Two years later the Chinese translation for “Cable Guy” – which is not a sequel to “Ace Ventura” – again included the character name 王牌 to show viewers that it was another Jim Carrey movie. This was repeated for other Jim Carrey movies as well (“Liar, Liar”, “Bruce Almighty”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). The logic went overboard when the first “Austin Powers” movie was first released as another 王牌 movie in China. Distributors apparently confused Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. White guys do all look the same, don’t they?
Other nations apparently don’t appreciate buying a pig in the poke. In 1991 the shocking suicide at the end of “Thelma and Louise” had audiences at the edge of their seats. That didn’t happen in Mexico, where movie goers were forwarned by the movie title “An Unexpected End” (“Un final insesperado“). Giving away the end or twists within the movie with the title seems to be common in Spain as well, where “Rosemary’s Baby” became “La Semilla del Diablo” (“The Baby of the Devil“) and the Scorsese movie “The Departed” was renamed “Infiltrados” (“Infiltrators“).
Can you think of other unfortunate movie title translations? We’d love to hear more!
Photo: Unbekannter Fotograf, via Wikimedia Commons