March 25, 2009

Movie titles translated into Chinese may be based on starring actor

The conventions for naming movies in Chinese are much different than those for English. For example, one-word movie titles (like Jaws) are thought to be dramatic and punchy in English, but are rarely used in Chinese. To explore some of these differences, let's look at mimetic naming in Chinese movie titles based on a few different factors.

Mimetic titles based on past movies of similar theme

In English, imitative movie titles are only acceptable for B-movies and for parodies (e.g. Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth). For Chinese movies, they are a bit more acceptable. I'll give two examples. The Korean movie My Sassy Girlfriend was a big hit when it was released in 2001. Since then, there have been ten other movies whose titles were translated as "My ____ Girlfriend" in Chinese. It might be true that a lot of these are B movies, and that list includes the American remake of My Sassy Girlfriend, but the list includes a diverse selection of movies such as Friends with Money (translated as "My Wild Girlfriend") and 50 First Dates (translated as "My Amnesic Girlfriend").

Mimetic titles based on no particular former movie

Another example of mimetic naming is the frequent use of the word zongdongyuan (總動員) in movie titles. Zongdongyuan literally means "general mobilization", but to get a better idea of how it is used in movie titles, think of it as "Mobilize!", "Move out!" or "All forces go!". Maybe the most natural translation is just to add the word "Ho!" at the end of the title. None of the movies are actually punctuated with an exclamation mark, but I think that is appropriate as an English translation. For example, the movie Elf was translated as "Elfs, Mobilize!", and the movie Robin Cook's Formula For Death was translated as "Bacteria, Mobilize!" There have been 45 movies titled using "zongdongyuan." I don't know how this meme started, but it is used so widely that it is clearly not seen as a reference to some former movie, it's just a snappy way of titling a movie.

Mimetic titles based on starring actor

Another instance of mimetics in movie titles is when the title of a movie is influenced by the starring actor's past movies. For example, Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was the first big Jim Carrey movie. "Ace" was translated into Chinese as wangpai (王牌, which literally means "king card"). When Cable Guy was released, wangpai was used in the Chinese title as a hint to prospective viewers that the movie starred Jim Carrey, star of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Later, wangpai was also used in the titles of Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, and most strangely, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not a comedy, so I find the wangpai in the title misleading. Also, it does not follow that Jim Carrey fans are the most likely audience for it.)

Another example is Will Smith, who has made three movies using the word quanmin (全民, which means "the people"). The first movie was Enemy of the State, which was translated as The People's Public Enemy. Hitch was then translated as The People's Love God, and Hancock was The People's Superman.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has made 14 movies that use the word mogui (魔鬼), which means demon. For 13 of those movies, "mogui" is the first word of the movie title; the one exception is the movie Last Action Hero, which was translated as "Last Demon Hero."

The Chinese poster for Terminator 4, or "Demon Terminator 4" as it is translated.

A few more examples are Brad Pitt, who has three movies that use the word huoxian (火線), which means "line of fire"; Matt Damon, who has five movies that use the word shengui (神鬼), which literally means "gods and ghosts", and which, based on its usage in movie titles, connotes stealthiness and intrigue; and Leonardo Dicaprio, who has three movie that also use the word shengui. (When Damon and Dicaprio starred in The Departed together, Damon already had three movies using shengui, and Dicaprio had two movies using shengui, so I suppose there was double motivation for including shengui in that title.)

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Movies of the form "My ____ Girlfriend"
  1. 我的野蠻女友 My Sassy Girl 2001
  2. 我的夢幻女友 My Beautiful Girl, Mari 2002
  3. 我的失憶女友 50 First Dates 2004
  4. 我的超人女友 My Super Ex-Girlfriend 2006
  5. 我的好野女友 Friends With Money 2006
  6. 我的恐怖女友 My Scary Girl 2006
  7. 我的雙面女友 Two Faces of my Girlfriend 2007
  8. 我的人魚女友 The Mermaid 2007
  9. 我的機器人女友 Cyborg She 2008
  10. 我去世的吃醋女友 Over Her Dead Body 2008
  11. 我的野蠻女友 My Sassy Girl 2008

Movies of the form "_____總動員"
  1. 汽車總動員 Cars 2006
  2. 未來總動員 Twelve Monkeys 1995
  3. 海底總動員 Finding Nemo 2003
  4. 危機總動員 Outbreak 1995
  5. 鐵男總動員 The Longest Yard 2005
  6. 精靈總動員 Elf 2003
  7. 魔鬼總動員 Total Recall 1990
  8. 奪命總動員 The Long Kiss Goodinght 1996
  9. 晶兵總動員 Small Soldiers 1998
  10. 鴿戰總動員 Valiant 2005
  11. 機飛總動員 Hot Shots! 1991
  12. 終極警探總動員 Striking Distance 1993
  13. 異形總動員 Virus 1999
  14. 機飛總動員2 Hot Shots! Part Deux 1993
  15. 公仔總動員-校園驚魂記 Terkel In Trouble 2004
  16. 靈異總動員 Bless the child 2000
  17. 潛艇總動員 Down Periscope 1996
  18. 危機總動員:疾素攔截 Con Express 2002
  19. 癲瘋總動員 Cool Runnings 1993
  20. 脫線總動員 Naked Gun 33 1/3 The Final Insult 1994
  21. 蟑螂總動員 Joe's Apartment 1996
  22. 綁票總動員 Screwed 2000
  23. 天兵總動員 Renaissance Man 1994
  24. 波霸總動員 Ladies in Operations 1991
  25. 情色總動員 Preaching To The Perverted 1997
  26. 病毒總動員 Contaminated Man 2000
  27. 終極笑探總動員 Rent A Kid 1995
  28. 絕地總動員 Queen's Messenger 2000
  29. 奪寶危機總動員 Legacy 2000
  30. 緝毒總動員 The Base 1999
  31. 小鬼總動員 Bebe's Kids 1992
  32. 全線總動員 Freedom Strike 1998
  33. 整人總動員 Dirty Work 1998
  34. 漢飽總動員 Good Burger 1997
  35. 戰略總動員 The Pandora Project 1998
  36. 細菌總動員 Robin Cook's Formula For Death 1995
  37. 黑金總動員 Montana 1998
  38. 布偶總動員 It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie 2002
  39. 捍衛總動員 Iron Eagle Iv 1995
  40. 神兵總動員 Tall Tale 1995
  41. 截殺總動員 Falcon Down 2000
  42. 瘋狂總動員 Going Berserk! 1983
  43. 賭鬼總動員 Gambling Ghost Are Ready 1991
  44. 黑色總動員 Tinseltown 1997
  45. FBI捍衛總動員 Mistrial 1996

Jim Carrey movies with the word 王牌
  1. 王牌冤家 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 2004
  2. 王牌天神 Bruce Almighty 2003
  3. 王牌大騙子 Liar Liar 1997
  4. 王牌特派員 The Cable Guy 1996
  5. 王牌威龍2:非洲大瘋狂 Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls 1995
  6. 王牌威龍 Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 1994

Will Smith movies with the word 全民
  1. 全民公敵 Enemy of the State (1998)
  2. 全民情聖 Hitch (2005)
  3. 全民超人 Hancock (2008)

Arnold Schwarzenegger movies with the word 魔鬼

  1. 魔鬼殺陣 Raw Deal (1986)
  2. 魔鬼司令 Commando (1986)
  3. 魔鬼阿諾 The Running Man (1987)
  4. 魔鬼紅星 Red Heat (1988)
  5. 魔鬼總動員 Total Recall (1990)
  6. 魔鬼孩子王 Kindergarten Cop (1990)
  7. 魔鬼終結者2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
  8. 最後魔鬼英雄 Last Action Hero (1993)
  9. 魔鬼大帝:真實謊言 True Lies (1993)
  10. 魔鬼二世 Junior (1994)
  11. 魔鬼毀滅者 Eraser (1996)
  12. 魔鬼末日 End Of Days (1999)
  13. 魔鬼複製人 The 6th Day (2000)
  14. 魔鬼終結者3 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Brad Pitt movies with the word 火線
  1. 火線追緝令 Seven (1995)
  2. 火線大逃亡 Seven Years In Tibet (1997)
  3. 火線交錯 Babel (2006)

Leonardo Dicaprio movies with the word 神鬼

  1. 神鬼交鋒 Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  2. 神鬼玩家 The Aviator (2004)
  3. 神鬼無間 The Departed (2006)

Matt Damon movies with the word 魔鬼
  1. 神鬼認證 The Bourne Identity (2002)
  2. 神鬼認證2:神鬼疑雲 The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
  3. 神鬼剋星 The Brothers Grimm (2005)
  4. 神鬼無間 The Departed (2006)
  5. 神鬼認證:最後通牒 The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

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  • Very nice discussion. I think it would be interesting as well to pull a fuller list from Wikipedia or somewhere else of translations of movie titles.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 26, 2009 5:42 PM  

  • Do you mean a list like this?

    By Blogger Taiwanonymous, at March 26, 2009 6:32 PM  

  • Very interesting. I never realised there was such an almost systematic process involved with translation of movie titles Eng->Chi. I wonder if you can do a comparison post with Chi->Eng movie titles as well? Food for thought.

    By Blogger Carl, at April 01, 2009 4:33 PM  

  • I love this one! GJ!

    Matt Damon seems to share a "Tag" with Lernado, not the Demon Governor.

    By Blogger Jenko, at April 12, 2009 8:07 PM  

  • I've always thought these translations were ridiculous. Although some are actually spot-on, like the one for The Day After Tomorrow.

    By Anonymous Eddie, at December 22, 2009 5:10 PM  

  • I've always thought these translations were bogus. Although some are actually rock-on, like the one for The Day Before Yesterday.

    By Anonymous Eddie, at May 18, 2010 4:09 PM  

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