Lost in Translation

The Tree of Languages. source: open culture
The Tree of Languages. source: open culture

This is the first in an occasional series that examines foreign-language films and their Hollywood remakes.


It can be argued that the coming of sound in Hollywood was a bad thing. For one, introducing dialogue reduced the visual impact of the films. For another, Talkies helped kill the careers of many silent stars, either because their speaking voices were not good enough or because English wasn’t their native language, and audiences weren’t willing to hear a revered screen idol speak in a heavy, barely-understandable European accent.

Perhaps that is one reason why Hollywood has been remaking foreign films for decades. Sure, you can always dub a foreign movie, but why do that when you can just take all the elements of a successful overseas product and remake and repackage it as something, well, more American?

Samurai warriors coming to the aid of helpless Japanese villagers is one thing, but wouldn’t you rather see a collection of white, English-speaking cowboys helping Mexican peasants instead?

Episode 17

Likewise, why watch three French bachelors struggle with a crying, pooping infant when you can see Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Gutenberg do the same?


Besides, watching foreign-language films presents its own problems. The common wisdom is that people don’t go to the movies to read subtitles, but even when they do, how much of the original movie’s meaning are we actually getting?

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I’ve been thinking about this because I’m currently involved in a project that involves translation. Not having a fluent Danish speaker to hand, and unable to get Fortitude‘s Mia Jexen to return any of my calls (except when her lawyer sent me a restraining order, but that’s another story) I had to find a translation service online. And it needed to be one that could translate a whole document, not just a few words. Years of watching sci-fi movies has taught me never to trust machines, so I opted for Smartling: while it does use translation software, there are also actual human beings involved, so I knew I wasn’t going to end up with something like this:


All languages have nuances and subtleties that are lost on even an advanced learner, ideas that generally get lost in translation. Jokes, especially, are hard to translate into another language.

I’d be curious, for instance, how the Marx Brothers sound in Japanese or German or Finnish.

Movie titles are especially difficult to translate. In Norway, for example, Die Hard is known by the brilliantly-accurate title Action Skyscraper. 

The Chinese have a peculiarly literate approach to how they sell Hollywood films. Guardians of the Galaxy is known as Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team. As Good As It Gets is known as Mister Cat Poop  in Honk Kong (Jack Nicholson’s character’s name, Melvin, is close to the Cantonese slang for cat poop). And The Full Monty is sold under the name Six Naked Pigs.

“Army of Darkness” or “Captain Supermarket” as it’s known in Japan
The German title for
The German title for “Stripes” translates as “I think the moose is smooching me!”

How do classic Hollywood movie lines cross the language barrier? Well, I’m sure the people who translate movies probably don’t use Google Translate, as it can sometimes be a little literal in putting one language into another.

Think of some famous movie lines: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” “Attica! Attica!” (okay, that last one is probably easy to translate).

” Tu vas besoin d’un plus gros bateau .”
“Voy a hacerle una oferta que no podrá rechazar .”
“Von allen Gin Gelenke in allen Städten in der ganzen Welt , geht sie in meine.”
“Franchement, ma chère, c’est le cadet de mes soucis.”

Technically, all of the above translations are correct, but they’re too stilted and too literal.


Stilted and literal comes to mind when thinking about Vanilla Sky.

A literal translation is obviously what Cameron Crowe was aiming at when he remade the Spanish psychological thriller Abre Los Ojos.

In Abre Los Ojos, rich playboy Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) meets the love of his life, Sofia (Peneleope Cruz), but then his jilted lover, Nuria (Najwa Nimri) almost kills him in a car crash, leaving him horrifically disfigured.

In case you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil what happens next. It’s a great little psychological mystery (Amenabar co-wrote the script with Mateo Gil).

It was a decent enough hit to warrant Hollywood to decide to do what it often does with foreign-language gems: make a version in English that keeps the plot but jettisons the original’s soul.

Crowe’s film is practically a carbon copy of the original, lifting dialogue and scenes directly.

Yet while both films run about two hours, Alejandro Amenabar’s original is quick-paced and offers genuine shock moments, but Vanilla Sky feels slow and plodding.


In part that is because Crowe decided to take a nifty, lean thriller idea and over-stuff it with meaning. The original film’s title, Abre Los Ojos, translates as Open Your Eyes, a perfectly decent name for a film about the line between reality and dreams. (It is also used as the opening and closing line of the film). Crowe keeps the line but decides to change the movie’s title to Vanilla Sky, a reference to a Monet painting featured in the film.


In Crowe’s film, David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a playboy millionaire deprived of his father’s love, whose worldview is shaped by pop culture (much like Crowe’s, I suspect).

His plush apartment is filled with classic film posters, mostly from la nouvelle vague (Jules et Jim is especially important). To Kill A Mockingbird plays on a TV in the background, and lo and behold that’s no accident, as we learn toward the film’s end that the kindly psychiatrist character (Kurt Russell) is a father figure, much as Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is a father figure for generations of movie-goers. In one scene Crowe replicates the cover of a Bob Dylan album because … well, I won’t spoil it.

The extent to which popular culture informs a person’s worldview is an interesting topic for an undergraduate essay, but it has no place in a psychological thriller. Ironically, it’s the only aspect of the remake that’s original. I don’t know why Crowe chose to stick so closely to the plot and dialogue of Amenabar’s film rather than trust his own screenwriting skills.

Both films feature Penelope Cruz as Sofia, and while in Spanish she is vivacious, charming and fresh, she struggles with her English delivery, even as she inhabits yet another of Crowe’s Manic Pixie Dream Girls.  The term was coined in connection with a later Crowe film, Elizabethtown, but there’s little question in my mind that Sofia epitomises the trope’s characteristics.

And of course there is a heap of music on the soundtrack, including a terrible title song by Paul McCartney, as well as songs by R.E.M., Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Jeff Buckley, The Chemical Brothers, Sigur Ros, Bob Dylan, and U2.

But Vanilla Sky, plodding as it is, might be worth watching if only to see who else is in the film, including Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Michael Shannon, and Johnny Galecki. Tilda Swinton and Timoty Spall pop up. Steven Spielberg and Conan O’Brien appear as themselves. Tommy Lee is briefly seen, as is Ken Leung.

4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. A great article Niall, one of your best mate. Perfect examples, some good laughs, and a lot of sense about the pointlessness of remakes, and the need to make sure subtitles are checked!
    I still won’t be bothering with ‘Vanilla Sky’ though.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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