Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Movie titles do not translate into Japanese
March 5, 2010 - By: - In: Translation - 11 comments

Japanese moviegoers have been avid Hollywood fans for generations. An entire industry exists to groom American films for Japanese audiences.

As soon as the Americans send over a reel, these Japanese marketing tigers pounce on the title of the film, which rarely survives as Americans know it.  The title has to catch the attention of moviegoers and the media — press the right buttons. Garry Marshall’s films usually have the katakana script for “pretty” in them because of the success of “Pretty Woman;” Reese Witherspoon’s “Legally Blonde” became “Cutie Blonde,” while “Miss Congeniality” is “Dangerous Beauty.” Anything with Steven Seagal has to have the word “yosai” (fortress) in the title, probably because of the success of his first “Under Siege” film.

Chris Betros has studied this phenomenon. “I tried for years to find out why Frank Capra’s 1936 classic ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ was retitled ‘Opera Hat,’ but apparently there is no one alive who remembers. Maybe some titles defy translation. The best Japan could do with ‘Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,’ was ‘Austin Powers Deluxe.’”

The first choice is always to transliterate most titles into the katakana renditions of the original title, although language factors have to be taken into consideration. When a movie is based on a famous novel, the distributors have to use the same title as the book, which is what they have done with the “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” series. “Memoirs of a Geisha” was rendered as “Sayuri” because that is the title of the Japanese translation for Arthur Golden’s book.
If a movie opens big in the U.S., the Japanese media report it, and the original title becomes quickly known, so the Japanese distributors have to go with it — which is why “There Will Be Blood” is transliterated as it is, even though it is cumbersome to pronounce in Japanese. On the other hand, the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” became just “No Country” — for No Good Reason.

This radical school of movie title localization is not just a Japanese thing, but a global phenomenon. Right here in the United States, they did it to the national monster of Japan — Godzilla’s real name in Japanese is “Gojira.” So why change it? Must have had something to do with money. I’ll leave questions of artistic integrity to Perry Mason.

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