Lost in Translation–The Sequel

by Hal Lipper, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

HONG KONG — When it comes to translating movie titles, not every name will do. So Hong Kong’s movie distributors have created a cottage industry to rename Hollywood titles for Chinese audiences. “Major studios think up titles that are flat, boring and don’t tell audiences what movies are about,” says Doinel Wu, who has spent more than a decade renaming Western movies. “We create titles that are more straightforward.” Hence, the Cantonese title for the film biography Nixon is “The Big Liar.” The title for Boogie Nights can be interpreted as “His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous.” Since many of Hong Kong residents don’t know Fargo is a city in snow-blown North Dakota, the movie Fargo became “Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream.” The words “snowy cream” are pronounced “fah go” in Cantonese.

The stakes are huge since English-language blockbusters dominate Hong Kong’s movie market and Chinese translations help sell the films to a wider audience. Mr. Wu’s titles are touted as among the best in the business. For the arty thriller The Professional, about a killer befriending an orphaned girl, he concocted “This Hit Man Is Not as Cold as He Thought.” The English Patient was problematic. Few Hong Kong residents knew of the novel and marketers say a faithful translation, like “The Sick Englishman,” wouldn’t have drawn audiences. Mr. Wu’s title, “Don’t Ask Me Who I Am,” captured the story’s mystery and passion. Good Will Hunting was equally challenging. Mr. Wu’s Chinese title, “Bright Sun, Just Like Me,” uses characters to imply more than can be said with words. The first half alludes to the Chinese title for Dead Poet’s Society, (“Bright Sun in Heavy Rain”) which also starred Robin Williams and was set at a school. The second half denotes a movie for young people who boldly do what they like.

Titanic and Air Force One needed no translation, distributors decided. But some of the local idioms don’t travel well. The Full Monty, a comedy about six unemployed steelworkers who become strippers, uses a Cantonese colloquialism meaning “Six Stripped Warriors.” The Mandarin interpretation is “Six Naked Pigs.” And some translations simply defy rationale. The Hong Kong title for As Good As It Gets, a comedy about a mean-spirited novelist, is “Mr. Cat Poop.” Its distributor declined comment.


15. Pretty Woman–“I Will Marry a Prostitute to Save Money”
14. Face/Off–“Who Is Face Belonging To? I Kill You Again, Harder!”
13. Leaving Las Vegas–“I’m Drunk and You’re a Prostitute”
12. Interview With The Vampire–“So, You Are a Lawyer?”
11. The Piano–“Ungrateful Adulteress! I Chop Off Your Finger!”
10. My Best Friend’s Wedding–“Help! My Pretend Boyfriend Is Gay!”
9. George of the Jungle–“Big Dumb Monkey-Man Keeps Whacking Tree With Genitals”
8. Scent of a Woman–“Great Buddha! I Can Smell You From Afar! Take a Bath, Will You?!”
7. Love, Valour, Compassion!–“I Am That Guy From Seinfeld, So It’s Acceptable for Straight People to Enjoy This Gay Movie”
6. Babe–“The Happy Dumpling-to-be Who Talks and Solves Agricultural Problems”
5. Twister–“Run! Ruuunnnn! Cloudzillaaaaa!”
4. Field of Dreams–“Imaginary Dead Baseball Players Live in My Cornfield”
3. Barb Wire–“Delicate Orbs of Womanhood Bigger Than Your Head Can Hurt You”
2. Batman & Robin–“Come to My Cave and Wear This Rubber Codpiece, Cute Boy!”
1. The Crying Game–“Oh No! My Girlfriend Has a Penis!”

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