It is of course completely normal for the titles of books, films, TV series and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and get something that conveys the sense and message of the artwork, rather than going for a word-for-word translation.
But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns and – of course – the French fondness for English phrases, some titles may surprise you.
The untranslatable ones
Some concepts just don’t cross international borders.
Groundhog Day – Un jour sans fin (an endless day) – Groundhog day in the US and Canada is a festival celebrated on February 2nd that is said to predict spring weather.
The festival doesn’t exist in France, or in the UK come to that, but while British audiences just had to accept a film with a weird title, in France it was translated as ‘an endless day’, which more accurately describes what the film is all about.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Arnaques, Crimes et Botanique (scams, crimes and botanicals) – the film’s English title is a pun on the phrase ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which means complete, with ‘smoking barrels’ as a nod to the gun storyline.
Puns are pretty hard to translate in general, but a mixture of two puns obviously had the French translators reaching for the white flag. Instead they’re gone for a three-word list that offers a pretty fair overall summary of what the film is all about.
The Shawshank Redemption – Les Évadés (The Escaped) – Frank Darabont’s slow-burn classic prison drama based on Stephen King’s short story couldn’t really translate into French, so you can’t blame them for not trying. Instead, they kept it simple.
Home Alone – Maman, j’ai raté l’avion (Mummy I missed the plane) – another example of deciding not to bother trying to translate a phrase and just giving a straightforward description of what the film is about comes from Home Alone.
Con air – Les ailes de l’enfer (the wings of hell) – the 1997 US film centres on a prison break aboard the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft, nicknamed ‘con air’, with ‘con’ the English abbreviation for convict (prisoner). Not having an exact French-language equivalent, the translators went for the frankly much more poetic ‘the wings of hell’.
Die Hard – Piège de cristal (The Crystal Trap) – Bruce Willis’s famously festive film gets a completely different name in French – and Spanish and Italian, come to that.
It gave French distributors a bit of a problem when the sequels came out, but they solved it by ignoring any links between the first film and those that followed completely. Die Hard 2: Die Harder translated to 58 Minutes Pour Vivre (58 Minutes to Live), while Die Hard with a Vengeance – which, in English, also pretty much glossed over Die Hard 2 for aesthetic reasons – became Une journée en enfer (A Day in Hell)
The totally different
Twilight – Le saga du désir interdit (the story of forbidden desire) – Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen vampire romance novels, later turned into a film franchise, appeared in the English-speaking world with the series name ‘twilight’.
A French translation of this time of day of course exists (crépuscule) but instead French translators decided to spell out the theme of the series – forbidden desire. The books appeared in France under the titles of Fascination (fascination) Tentation (temptation) Hésitation (hesitation) Révélation (revelation) L’Appel du sang (the call of blood) and Midnight Sun.
The A Team – L’agence tous risques (the risk-all agency) – similarly with The A Team, French film distributors apparently decided that audiences needed to be clearly informed of the premise – a group of agents who would take on any mission, even the most risky.
Airplane! – Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (Is there a pilot on the plane?) – they kept the name of the 1980 disaster movie spoof, surely? No, the French decided to rename that, too … and don’t call me Shirley.
No time to die – Mourir peut attendre (death can wait) – if you didn’t know better you might assume that the cool, classy ‘death can wait’ was the original title of the latest James Bond film and ‘no time to die’ the awkward translation. In fact, it was the other way round.
Jaws – Les dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) – the title of the Spielberg movie in English just refers to the shark, but the title in French refers to both the shark itself and the greater sense of the unknown dangers of the deep.
The weird and/or sexist
Mean Girls – Lolita malgré moi (Lolita despite myself) – French schoolgirls are mean, bitchy and cliquey too, so there are plenty of options in French for a near-literal translation of the title of high-school drama Mean Girls.
Instead the translator went for the fairly problematic option of ‘Lolita despite myself’ – by which we can assume he never read Nabakov’s classic novel (first published in France, incidentally) telling the story of the paedophile Humbert Humbert and his victim Lolita.
Little Women – Les 4 filles du docteur March (the four daughters of Dr March) – it’s a film (based on a book) entirely about the lives of women, the four March sisters and their mother. Dr March barely features (because he’s away fighting in the American Civil War) but that doesn’t stop the French version from deciding that it’s all about him.
The inexplicably sexy ones
Sometimes English language movie titles remain in English but with different titles – for example The Hangover in France is Very Bad Trip. But there is also a distinct trend to just add the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ to an English language title to, well, sex it up a bit . . .
Not Another Scary Movie – Sex Academy
Out Cold – Snow, Sex and Sun
Wild Things – Sex Crimes
Euro Trip – Sex Trip
The English titles for French films
With all the effort that goes into translating English titles into French, you might get a surprise when you start viewing something with an English title, only to find that it’s as French as a snail-filled baguette.
Family Business – the Netflix series about a Paris family who get drawn into international drug smuggling is smart, funny and completely French – it just has an English title.
LOL – although there is an American remake of the teen film LOL, the French version (starring Sophie Marceau) came first.
In France people use the acronym MDR (mort de rire or died laughing) in text speak, but the filmmakers obviously reckoned that the English acronym was well enough known for the title.
The film is entirely in French, with only a very brief foray into English when the characters go on a school trip to London (and experience rain and horrible food, naturally).
MILF – the American acronym MILF (Mom I’d like to F**k) really hit the mainstream thanks to the 2003 film American Pie and by 2018 French film-makers were confident that it was well enough known even in France to use as the title of a French movie.
The film depicts three older women who take a road trip to try and rediscover their youth and friendship – no prizes for guessing what they end up doing.
We asked our French friends if there is a French equivalent of MILF and no-one could suggest one.
For all that French cinema distributors are happy to have the odd partially or wholly English title, strict language rules in French-speaking Canada mean that movies there often have completely different titles.
For example American Pie – released under its English name in France – became Folies de graduation (graduation madness) in Quebec, while Ghost also kept its original title in France but was released as Mon Fantôme d’amour (My ghost love) in Quebec.
. . . and the myth
There’s an urban legend that The Matrix appeared in France as Les jeunes qui traversent des dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil (young people who travel in dimensions while wearing sunglasses) but in fact the film appeared in France as Matrix, although it was La Matrice in Quebec.