Lost in Translation: How Israel Botches American Movie Titles

Translating movie titles is a serious business - one that often leads to curious (and hysterical) results.

Amy Klein
Amy Klein
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Amy Klein
Amy Klein

It’s Oscar season, when people around the world rush to watch all the contenders before the March 2 ceremony. But how do you find the films in a foreign country?

Luckily in Israel, the 2014 Academy Award best picture nominations “12 Years a Slave,” “Her,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” stayed true to their Hollywood monikers, with only some minor changes, like “American Hustle,” becoming “American Dream” in Hebrew.

But good luck finding some of the films further down the nominees list, unless you know that Best Animated Feature Film “Despicable Me 2,” was called “Crazy about the Minions” in Hebrew – just like the first “Despicable Me,” was called “Crazy about the Moon,” and “Frozen,” in the same category, was translated as “Breaking the Ice.”

Before the internet brought us websites like targumon in Israel providing a searchable database, it was sometimes impossible to track a movie down, and definitely amusing to see the results.

Some past doozies include Judd Apatow flicks like “Knocked Up,” which in Hebrew was rendered, “The Date Who Screwed Me,” and “Superbad,” which became “Superbad: Horny All the Time.”

Comedies often take a beating in Hebrew, with the Ben Stiller film “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” called “Dodgeball: Grab Life by the Balls,” and the Charlie Sheen flick “Hot Shot” spoofs called “Dancing with Pilots” and “Dancing with Fighters,” respectively. One of the most famous knee-slappers of the genre is “Naked Gun,” which Leslie Nielsen might have appreciated being called “The Gun Died of Laughter.” (At least they kept the sequel numbers 2 ½ and 33 1/3.)

It’s easy to see how some films might need a local angle. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” became “It’s Raining Falafel,” the latter perhaps more yummy to sabras. And some just need more information, with the sultry 1986 film “9½ Weeks,” starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke shown as “9 ½ Weeks of Ecstasy.”

Some translations reveal cultural biases: File under sexism the Hebrew version of Paul Feig’s recent flick, “The Heat,” a female buddy cop comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, called “Agitated Women” (which also missed the double entendre of “heat” which is slang for police or weapons, as in “packing heat.”) In the same category, take note of the 2007 American film, “In the Land of Women,” which in Israel became “Women, Go figure.”

There’s a method to the madness, say translators and distributors – the ones usually in charge of the job of coming up with the local title. “If there’s an expression that’s doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew, we have to change it,” said one translator. “American Hustle,” he said, means nothing in Hebrew, not to mention how the double entendre of the dance and the scam aren’t translatable. “But sometimes it’s very clear, like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ or ‘August: Osage County,’ which played at Habima Theatre, so was familiar to audiences,” he said.

"In the Land of Women" got retranslated as "Women, Go figure."

It’s mostly about marketing. “You want people to go see the movies,” explained Ronit Gilad-Herman, marketing manager of Nachshon Films, an Israeli distributor. Subtitles, however, are outsourced to outside translation firms. Speaking of outsourcing, Gilad-Herman couldn’t call the 2006 American film “Outsourced” in Hebrew. “I can’t translate ‘outsourced’ because there was no word for it,” she said. Instead she referred to the film’s plot, which is about an American who has to go to India because his whole department was outsourced there. So in Israel it was called, “Moving to India.” Just like “Lost in Translation,” the 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, was called “Lost in Tokyo,” which is itself pretty much lost in translation.

"Lost in Translation" got retranslated as "Lost in Tokyo."

“If you can try with the original title, you do,” she said. “Batman is Batman.” But sometimes they just don’t mean anything, she said, recalling “Intouchables,” the 2011 French film her company distributed. In Israel, the title meant exactly the opposite: “Connected to Life.” But, she said, “we consulted with the directors, and they liked it.”

"The Intouchables" got retranslated as "Connected to Life."

Historically, some Israeli titles honored cultural sensitivity: “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the 1970s TV series about the bionic man, was changed to “The Man Worth Millions” due to “the strong connotations the Israeli population had to the word ‘six million’ because it reminded them of the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust,” according to Televizia.net.

“The Heat” got translated as “Agitated Women.”

On the flip side, “Wonder Woman” the 1970s TV series of a similar genre, starring the scantily clad Lynda Carter, became “Woman of Valor,” in Israel, a nod to the ode to women “eishet chayil” prayer from the last chapter of Proverbs that a husband traditionally recites to his wife on Friday nights before the meal. (Interestingly, the latest actress to play Wonder Woman in the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” film is an Israeli: Gal Gadot.)

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” got translated as “It’s Raining Falafel.”

Israel is no different than other countries that translate titles of imported films, resulting in some surprises. In China, “The Full Monty” was called “Six Naked Pigs” and “Boogie Nights,” was “His Great Device Makes Him Famous,” according to Den of Geeks. The website also notes that “Annie Hall” was called “The Urban Neurotic” in Germany, and in that Italy, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” was titled, “If You Leave Me, I Delete You.”

Perhaps, as this year’s faithful titles in the Oscar contenders illustrate, Israel is getting better, leaving more of the original names on the movies. Note the progression of the (non-Oscar worthy) “Hangover” trilogy: The first was called “Stopping in Vegas on the Way to the Wedding” (2009), the second was called “Stopping in Bangkok on the Way to the Wedding” (2011). But by the third installment, released last year, it was simply called, “Hangover 3: Return to Vegas.”

"American Hustle" got retranslated as "American Dream."

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