Lost in Translation | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 15.04.2004
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Lost in Translation

Many English language films make it to the German screens with their original titles intact. Some, however, are subject to changes that leave many visitors and ex-pats scratching their heads.


A Tomcat Makes Theater...apparently.

English speakers living in Germany -- even those proficient in the native tongue -- often squint at the titles of movies advertised in the local press. Sometimes the English title of the film has been retained, making it easy for the ex-pat to identify the film. Others times, however, the movie has been given a mind-boggling new name, creating a minefield of confusion.

Take the new Mike Myers film based on the Dr. Seuss children's book classic "The Cat in the Hat". From the posters, it is obvious that the film is the same: Myers in full cat makeup and a large top hat gives it away. But the title on poster, "Ein Kater Macht Theater" or "A Tomcat Makes Theater" doesn't come close to the original.

Sometimes the titles have their basis in the plot of the film. A good example is "Die Unbestechlichen" (The Incorruptible), the German title for the Watergate story "All the President's Men," where journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover a presidential scandal.

The Knights of the Coconut

However, the German Film Board has also come up with some really bizarre alternatives. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" may feature several references to coconuts, but not to the extent that would justify the film being called "Die Ritter der Kokosnuss" (The Knights of the Coconut).

The same could be said about "Der Mann mit der Todeskralle" (The Man with the Deadly Claw) or, as English viewers know it, "Enter the Dragon." Bruce Lee, the star of the cult seventies martial arts classic, does indeed prove that his hands are lethal weapons, but there is no actual claw in sight.

Similarly, the seminal spaghetti western "Once Upon a Time in the West" contains a haunting melody played by Charles Bronson's harmonica man, but that hardly justifies naming the film "Spiel Mir Das Lied Vom Tod" (Play Me the Song of Death).

Rebel without a Clue?

James Dean Smoking

Sometimes the titles have been changed to such an extent that only the extremely knowledgeable would be able to identify the film without seeing the accompanying poster. Take "Rebel without a Cause": the iconic image of James Dean leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and oozing attitude would give it away. But the German title "...Denn Sie Wissen Nicht, Was Sie Tun (They Do Not Know What They Do) would render many faces blank.

Another iconic movie suffered an even more bizarre fate. Marlon Brando's "On the Waterfront," with its boxing storyline, was afforded the strange title, "Die Faust im Nacken" (The Fist in the Nape of the Neck). And Martin Scorsese's kinetic debut feature "Mean Streets" lost its New York gangster feel with the German title "Hexenkessel," meaning bedlam.

However, Germany is a long way from being the worst offender. That dubious honor goes to the Hong Kong film industry, which has come up with some classics.

The Big Liar and other Cantonese oddities

Oliver Stone's biopic of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, unimaginatively titled "Nixon" by the director, was livened up and renamed "The Big Liar." The Coen brothers' winter wilderness crime story "Fargo" was given even more special treatment, entering Hong Kong cinemas under the title "Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream."

Jack Nicholson

Mr. Cat Poop.

But the best has to be the Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson comedy "As Good as it Gets", which got a complete makeover, eventually reflecting the main character's attitude problem in the name "Mr. Cat Poop."

English-speaking audiences in Germany should count their blessings.