Language is a complex thing. Each one has its own idioms and expressions that don’t really have an equivalent in other languages. When it comes to translation, this gets especially sticky. Common phrases literally translated word-for-word fall flat or sound awkward, and while they sometimes succeed in grabbing a laugh, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
English is a particularly difficult language to translate because of how it has evolved over time. Slang, regional expressions and words that are practically made up on the spot complicate one’s job when, say, that someone is responsible for translating the title of a popular American movie into Japanese.
We completely sympathize with that challenge, but after one look at the 15 titles below, you can’t help but wonder whether these translators completely phoned it in when it came to movies like …
15 Deception = Sex List (Italy)
Deception is a 2008 film starring Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. It’s a psychological crime thriller about an accountant (played by McGregor) who meets a high-powered attorney (played by Jackman) and is introduced to the lurid underbelly of New York’s powerful set, which basically involves organizing a bunch of affairs on the hush.
But if you were watching the movie in Italy, you’d be forgiven if you thought you had signed on for some kind of American Pie-style hookup comedy starring Obi Wan Kenobi and Wolverine as a couple of well-meaning (but sexually irresponsible) knuckleheads in some sort of womanizing competition, with a title like Sex List.
While Deception does indeed include Italy’s eponymous “list” as a plot device, the impression given by the Italian title doesn’t quite match the moody atmosphere of the film. It’s probably one of the most literal title mistranslations on the list, but while we’re on that topic …
14 Captain America = The First Avenger (Various)
Captain America: The First Avenger introduced Steve Rogers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it was released in 2011. Needless to say, Captain America is pretty important to the Marvel mythos (being the leader of The Avengers and all), and the movie introduces his origins with a solid period flick set in WWII.
While the film carried The First Avenger as a subtitle in the United States, many other territories released it under just The First Avenger, dropping the character’s name from the masthead of his own movie.
Why? Who knows. Maybe they thought that folks in those territories wouldn’t go and see a movie about a guy dressed in an American flag and wanted to tone down the patriotism a bit. Like Superman at DC, Cap can be kind of difficult to adapt to modern times. Designed as a symbol of American pride (or as some argue, propaganda), it can be hard to relate to him when perception of the U.S. ‘round the world is what it is these days.
But this ain’t a political article, so let’s move on ...
13 I Heart Huckabees = Multinationals Go Home! (Hungary)
If you were in college in 2004, you probably thought that I Heart Huckabees was like the deepest movie ever, bro. Directed by David O. Russell, the movie is often called an “existential comedy,” and follows two detectives you could hire to investigate the meaning of your life.
It features a star-studded cast including Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Mark Wahlberg and more, and got mostly positive reviews despite being a bit of a box office dud.
But if you were watching the movie in Hungary, you’d be forgiven if you thought the film was a critique of capitalism and globalization with a title like Multinationals Go Home!
Jason Schwartzman’s character is an environmentalist protesting the opening of a chain department store (the eponymous “Huckabees”), so that’s probably what the title is referencing. But despite the subplot of anti-corporatism, focusing on that bit kind of misses the point of the movie, which was…uh…uhm…
12 Austin Powers = Ace Big Cheap Spy (China)
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a modern classic. Released in 1997 and starring SNL alum Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley, the film and its sequels are parodies of '60s spy movies, riffing most obviously on the Sean Connery Bond films.
But if you were watching in China, you might think you’d signed up for a movie about a spy’s quest to find only the choicest deals on velvet suits from his local Goodwill, with a title like Ace Big Cheap Spy.
Throwing “Ace” into a title haphazardly isn’t all that uncommon in China, but we’ve selected Austin Powers for our list because even without “Ace” (which, let’s be honest, means nothing to us) the title makes absolutely no sense. It’s entirely possible that the cultural disconnect here meant that folks in China didn’t fully understand what the film was parodying (or that it was a parody at all) and just picked something silly to drive its audiences to what they saw as just another American comedy..
Of course, Ace Big Cheap Spy sounds pretty tame compared to…
11 WALL-E = Machine Implement People General Mobilization (China)
WALL-E, released in 2008, is easily one of the most beloved entries in the Disney Pixar oeuvre. In it, the titular WALL-E is a trash compactor robot charged with cleaning up Earth (which basically looks like a giant landfill) while humans enjoy leisurely pursuits and obesity in giant space colonies.
It’s a light-hearted comedy with a point; a movie for the whole family that asks some important questions about consumerism, the environment, and our addiction to technology. But if you were watching in, you guessed it, China, you’d be forgiven if you thought the movie was about…actually, we have no idea what people anywhere could possibly expect from a movie titled Machine Implement People General Mobilization.
To be fair, this is almost certainly a case where the translation into Chinese makes sense for the audiences there, and the literal translation back into English is where the misunderstanding occurs. Still, it conjures assumptions of giant robot military political space epics, not cute little garbage disposals.
But hey, enough beating up on China. They certainly aren’t the only country that goes the extra mile when it comes to relatively straightforward titles...
10 The Dark Knight = Batman: Knight of the Night (Spain)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was released in 2008 and is arguably, financially and critically, the most successful Batman movie ever made. The film improved upon its already-impressive predecessor Batman Begins in almost every imaginable way, and with Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as The Joker, the movie has become the baseline by which fans judge all future film depictions of the Batman mythos.
But if you were watching the movie in Spain, you’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching a three-hour music video for a Batdance II single (may the Purple One rest in peace) with a title like Batman: Knight of the Night.
We can understand wanting to make sure that audiences know they’re signing up for a Batman movie when they look at the title, but what’s with Knight of the Night? To be fair, “Knight of the Night” doesn’t sound nearly as silly in Spanish as it does in English (Caballero del Noche), or maybe it does. You know we don't speak Spanish.
9 That Awkward Moment - Are We Officially Dating? (Australia)
Awkwardness. It’s something Screen Rant writers experience on the daily. It’s something people like Zac Efron probably don’t really experience that often, but he was in a movie called That Awkward Moment in 2014 regardless, and he made a lot of money pretending to feel something we just do for free around here.
Though billed as a romantic comedy, the movie was a bit more on the dramatic side and, despite the title, didn’t really feature too many instances of the sort of hilariously awkward failings you would expect from a movie called That Awkward Moment.
It’s completely possible that we’re the ones who got the short end of the stick on this one. In Australia, the movie was titled Are We Officially Dating? Which sounds extremely on-the-nose except that the title fits the plot of the film pretty perfectly. Zac Efron and Imogen Poots' characters, despite being beautiful, successful young people, can’t seem to figure out the status of their relationship throughout the film, and neither can the films' other 2 pairings.
Anyway, asking someone in real life if you’re officially dating is one of the top 10 most awkward things you can do in your life, so this one isn’t all that bad.
8 American Ultra = Hyper Agent Américain (Canada)
Released just last year in 2015, American Ultra stars Jesse Eisenberg as a slacker stoner who is really a secret agent. The kicker is, he has smoked so much pot that his handler can’t activate him with a series of code words that were programmed into him, a la the Winter Soldier.
The film was a commercial and critical flop, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t see it and have no idea what we’re talking about. The important thing for the purposes of this article is that the film was released in Canada as Hyper Agent Américain, a title that was probably decided on when the translator saw that it was a spy movie starring that hyper kid from The Social Network.
Of course, our neighbors to the north aren’t the only ones with funny ideas for titles in French…
7 The Greatest Movie Ever Sold = Super Cash Me (France)
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a 2011 documentary about marketing and advertising in films, specifically the use of product placement in popular Hollywood productions. Every time you see a Heineken in James Bond’s hand or a Doritos bumper sticker on the back of the Batmobile, some marketing hotshot from one of those companies basically promised to give the studio money to fund the film in return for their products being featured.
Some people think it’s harmless. Others say it takes them out of the film and hurts the experience. The rest just think it’s obnoxious, even though they probably end up buying Heineken and Doritos that afternoon anyway. In any case, the film was made by Morgan Spurlock, who will sound familiar to you if you’ve seen his best known documentary, Super Size Me.
The reason that’s important is because the French must have thought they could sell a few more tickets with a title closer to that of Spurlock’s more successful Super Size Me, and thus changed The Greatest Movie Ever Sold to Super Cash Me in France. Just in case you’re thinking “Sacre bleu! That’s ridiculous!” rest assured, it is, but it’s far from the weirdest French title on the list.
6 Home Alone = Mom, I Missed the Plane! (France)
If you’re a '90s kid, Home Alone is one of your favorite Christmas movies. In it, 8-year-old Kevin McCallister is accidentally left behind by his family when they go on an extended holiday vacation. Though finally being alone begins as a dream come true for Kevin, a couple of no-good thieves prowl his house and he has to use his wits (and come clever, painful traps) to defend the homestead.
The movie was a huge success and basically dumped enough money into star Macaulay Culkin’s junior savings account that he hasn’t really had to do anything since, except pursue his weird pizza band passion.
Anyway, in France, they really honed in on the terrifying real-world prospect of an 8-year-old left alone in a house to be preyed on by bandits by titling the movie Mom, I Missed the Plane! Home Alone might not be the best title, but it’s certainly iconic, whereas the French version is a little too alarmist and non-specific.
Rounding out our tour de France …
5 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire = Hunger Games: The Burning (France)
Some of that box office money came from France, where the film was retitled Hunger Games: The Burning (or simply, Hunger Games: The Fire). Catching Fire is a more metaphorical title than a literal one, but something about The Burning sounds a little too literal.
Now, why they picked so literal a translation is beyond our understanding, but we’d be lying if we said Hunger Games: The Burning didn’t make us giggle a little bit. And like we said in the intro, for all the wrong reasons.
But at least it’s close. Some translated titles really do sound like they came out of nowhere at first flush…
4 Once Upon a Time In the West = Harmonica: The Avenger (Sweden)
Once Upon a Time In the West is an absolute classic, and one of the best western genre films of all time. The 1968 film, directed by the legendary Sergio Leone, features the fictional town of Flagstone and a dispute over the construction of a railroad.
Henry Fonda, cast against type as the film’s villain, is hired to scare a landowner so his boss can build his railroad, but he goes off-playbook and kills the landowner and all his kids. This sets Charles Bronson, a known bad ass in '60s movies, on his tail.
Bronson plays a “Man With No Name” type in the film, but one of his distinguishing features is the harmonica he’s frequently seen playing. One character in the film nicknames Bronson’s character after the musical instrument, which is probably how Sweden got the idea to re-title the movie Harmonica: The Avenger.
Honestly, Sweden’s title is kind of appropriate. Whereas in Latin America, film titles can often give the completely wrong impression.
3 101 Dalmatians = The Night of the Cold Noses (Latin America)
101 Dalmatians is a classic Disney animated film, and one of the studio’s most iconic early works. Based on the novel by English children’s author Dodie Smith, the film has spawned numerous spin-offs, including two live-action adaptations starring Glenn Close as the iconic villain Cruella De Vil.
It’s a pretty straightforward, kid-friendly story about two dalmatians and their 15 puppies who get mixed in with 80+ more stray dalmatians in a scheme to provide fashionable dalmatian furs for De Vil to wear. Naturally, the titular 101 dalmatians defeat De Vil and her henchmen, and are all adopted by the original owners of the dalmatian couple.
But if you were watching the movie in Latin America, you’d be forgiven if you thought you were sitting through a horror movie about killer Dalmatians with a title like The Night of the Cold Noses. A completely tone-deaf title, it’s a wonder that Latin American audiences thought they were sitting down for a family-friendly animated movie about dogs at all here.
But hey, it’s not quite their worst attempt at film title translation. That honor is reserved for…
2 Scream = Scream, Keep An Eye On Who’s Calling (Latin America)
Wes Craven’s 1996 horror film Scream re-invigorated the slasher genre for a whole new generation with its balance of gore, mystery, and a heavy dose of meta humor. The film’s adherence to tried and true horror formula and a tongue-in-cheek tone brought unprecedented critical acclaim and box office success to horror films, and is credited by some critics with revitalizing the flagging genre.
The movie is a little cheese (on purpose), but is still taken seriously as a genuine horror film. Of course, that might not have been the case if we’d had Latin America’s title, Scream, Keep An Eye On Who’s Calling.
Though it’s an obvious reference to the film’s opening sequence and the phone call motif used throughout, it’s hard to tell whether the Latin American title is meant to invoke fear, or if it’s purpose is some kind of meta instruction for audience members with caller ID.
Hard to say, but the Scream series hasn’t suffered as much in other territories as other iconic films like...
1 The Entire Die Hard Series (various)
The first Die Hard is one of the quintessential American action movies. The sequels were okay, depending on who you ask. Either way, the improbable adventures of plucky New York cop John McClane have been part of our cultural fabric for nearly 30 years now, and we may have more Die Hard-yness on the way.
But that’s terrible news for film title translators the world over, because apparently “die hard” is the hardest thing to translate into other languages ever. The titles of all five films have been uniquely bastardized in other territories over the years. The original Die Hard? Action Skyscraper according to Norway. Die Hard 2? That’s The Jungle 2: Red Alert to you, Spain. Die Hard 3 is Die Hard: Mega Hard in Denmark and Die Hard 4 is Die Hard 4.0: The Most Expensive of Your Life in Hungary. The latest, A Good Day to Die Hard is simply Tough Nut to Crack: A Great Day to Die in Lithuania which sounds like some kind of buddy cop/ritualistic honor killing hybrid.
Maybe Die Hard 6 will end up as Die Hard Latest: Retire, McClane, Retire or Dying Hard is Hardest: A Picnic of Guns somewhere.
Did we forget your favorite awkwardly-titled blockbuster hit? Sound off in the comments section.