Movie title translations

What’s the main reason why we choose a film when we go to the cinema or when we’re going to have a “home movie” night?

Obviously, there are many answers to that question: recommendations of friends, reviews, awards received, having seen the trailer, etc. Even still, we can’t overlook the fact that the film’s title is the first thing that attracts our attention and is the first point of reference. That’s why the translation of a film’s title is essential.

We should also mention (even though it often isn’t kept in mind) that the final decision about the title of an English-language film translated into Spanish usually has more to do with marketing than the translation. While in cinema it is certainly important to maintain a measure of loyalty to the original title given by the author, other factors also come into play, which is where the marketing department usually has the last word. Here are a few factors to consider, together with some examples:

  • Cultural references: the Tiffany’s store in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was not very well known in Spain, so the decision was made to eliminate that reference and provide an explanation: Desayuno con diamantes (literally, “Breakfast with diamonds”).
  • Word games: in La La Land, the plot takes place in Los Angeles, colloquially known as “L.A.”. The repetition of “La” plays with the initials of the city, while also referring to music. The title furthermore plays with the meaning of the expression, “la-la land”, referring to a daydreamer or someone in a fantasy world, a scenario depicted in the film to a certain extent.
  • Impact on the public: a literal translation of the title, The naked gun, could sound strange to Spanish speakers (in Spanish, “La pistola desnuda”). The title ended up being translated as Agárralo como puedas in Spanish (literally, “Grab it however you can”).

When translating, it is important to keep the preceding factors in mind when choosing the most appropriate technique. Consequently, we could choose from among using a loanword (meaning a phrase or word in the original language, i.e. Pretty Woman, which remains the same for the Spanish-speaking public); using a literal translation (i.e. The devil wears Prada / El diablo viste de Prada); making a transposition (in other words, changing one syntactic structure for another, as in The imitation game, which is a noun phrase that becomes a verb phrase in Spanish: Descifrando Enigma [literally, “Deciphering Enigma”]); using an equivalence (that is, conveying a reality through a different expression, i.e. Some like it hot / Con faldas y a lo loco [literally, “With skirts and any old way”]); using an adaptation (also known as cultural substitution, i.e. Harold and Kumar go to White Castle / 2 colgaos muy fumaos [literally, “2 stoners really stoned”]); or by directly adding an explanatory note to the title (i.e. Brokeback Mountain / Brokeback Mountain: en terreno vedado).

To choose the most suitable translation technique, another essential aspect – in addition to the aforementioned factors – is to maintain or ensure the good function of the translated title, such as the following functions:

  • Informative: the priority is to provide information about the film. An example is Green Zone / Green Zone: distrito protegido [literally, “protected district”].
  • Expressive: literary resources are used, which could be onomatopoeias, rhymes, alliterations, etc. An example is Donkey Xote, which plays with the name of the protagonist of El Quijote.
  • Appellative: an attention-getting reference is used. An example is The lovely bones (Desde mi cielo), which is shocking to viewers, because the adjective “lovely” isn’t usually used to refer to something inanimate such as a bone.

So we could conclude that the translation of a film’s title is a complex subject in which various aspects must be considered. Remaining true to the original is important, but we can’t forget that a film is still a product in the market and that, therefore, the objective is film consumption. The receiving public is ultimately decisive regarding the final translated title.

Finally, we present some translations of the titles of films that will most certainly ring a bell… How many have you seen? Did you know the translated titles?

1. Top blockbuster films of all times

Original (EN) Translation (ES)
Gone with the Wind (1939) Lo que el viento se llevó (1939)
Avatar (2009) Avatar (2009)
Titanic (1997) Titanic (1997)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A new hope (1977) Star Wars: Episodio IV – Una nueva esperanza (1977)
Avengers: Endgame (2019) Vengadores: Endgame (2019)

2. Classic films

Original (EN) Translation (ES)
Casablanca (1942) Casablanca (1942)
West Side Story (1961) West Side Story (1961)
A Clockwork Orange (1971) La naranja mecánica (1971)
Psycho (1960) Psicosis (1960)
Grease (1978) Grease (1978)

3. Winners of the Oscar for best film (2015 to 2020)

Original (EN) Translation (ES)
Parasite (2019) Parásitos (2019)
Greenbook (2018) Greenbook (2018)
The shape of water (2017) La forma del agua (2017)
Moonlight (2016) Moonlight: Historia de una vida (2016)
Spotlight (2015) Spotlight (2015)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) Birdman o (la inesperada virtud de la ignorancia) (2014)

4. The most creative translations of film titles

Original (EN) Translation (ES)
The Sound of Music (1965) Sonrisas y lágrimas (1965)
Ice Princess (2005) Soñando, soñando… triunfé patinando (2005)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) ¡Olvídate de mí! (2004)
Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) La salchicha peleona (1997)
The Parent Trap (1998) Tú a Londres y yo a California (1998)

Luján García, Isabel (2010). Traducción de los títulos de películas en los cines de España: ¿inglés y / o español? (online). Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.