Saturday, March 03, 2012

Lost in Translation

Recently I decided to try my hand at translating movie subtitles. Translating anything is hard enough, but movie subtitles brings a host of special challenges to the table. It didn't help that the movie I chose to translate provided nearly every single one of these challenges.

The movie was Mädchen, Mädchen, directed by Dennis Gansel, one of Germany's best young directors (The Wave, We Are the Night). The film is story of three young women, Inken, Vicky, and Lena. They are about to graduate from high school and are looking to get laid. There are several subplots involving a crucial volleyball game, the new girlfriend of Inken's father, and a lout who gets his comeuppance, but most of the action centers around Inken (the delightful Diana Amft) and her efforts to experience her first orgasm. It is a frank and funny film, but it is also pretty raunchy. The dialog is casual and realistic, which means lots of contractions and slang. Any attempt to get a meaningful translation out of the German subtitle source file by feeding it through Google Translate was bound to result in gibberish. A quick check online at the movie subtitle sites revealed that there were English subtitles already available, but they were obviously written by someone schooled in the King's English. “I have to go to the loo” wouldn't mean much to the average American, and I can't see an American girl saying, “My knickers are too tight.” Not to mention that these subtitles were not timed to the actual film, but were probably intended for a bootlegged bit torrent of the movie. I wanted my subtitles to be suitable for an American audience, and I wanted it to sync with the legitimate German DVD copy of the film.

Right off the bat, the movie presents a problem with its title. How do you translate “Mädchen, Mädchen?” IMDB lists the US title of the film as Girls on Top, which is almost as bad as the German translation of the title of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Vergiss mein nicht—or, “Forget me Not”). A more literal translation (Girls, Girls), would have been better, although the nature of English dictates a third “Girls” in the title, but Elvis already made a film with that title. Maiden, Maiden would also work, but who uses the word “maiden” anymore? I decided to not waste too much time on this conundrum and go straight to the dialog.

The film starts easily with the other girls wishing Inken a happy birthday. Things don't really get complicated until we encounter Tim, Inken's insensitive boyfriend. Tim likes to wear T-shirts with stupid sayings on them. When first we see him, he is walking into the gymnasium during a volleyball game. His T-shirt reads: “Trübsal ist nicht das einzige das Man blasen kann.” Feed this into Google Translate and you'll get: “Tribulation is not the only one that can blow,” which one could further finesse into “Misery isn't the only thing you can blow,” but even this doesn't come close to capturing the meaning of the saying, nor, for that matter, does it make much sense. The joke of the saying relies on the fact that the verb blasen (to blow) is the verb of choice for the noun Trübsal to mean to be down, or depressed, and blasen can also have the same obscene connotation that it has in English. Since the joke of the slogan is based entirely on the double entendre of “blow,” I decided to drop “misery” and find a word that would create the same effect in English, leading me to translate the shirt as “Smoke isn't the only thing you can blow.” I imagine that if this was shown in a theater, at this point, there would be Germans muttering to their American dates, “That's not what is says,” but at least this way the English-speaking viewers also have a pun to groan at.

Tim’s next T-shirt, though, proved even more problematic: “Andere Länder, Andere Titten.” Literally, this translates to “Other Countries, Other Tits,” but to translate it like that would miss the terrible pun in the saying. In German, one might say, “Andere Länder, andere sitten” to mean something along the lines of “When in Rome,” or “Different strokes, for different folks.” I had to find some way to get this across. My first thought was to take the English expression “different folks,” and turn it into something like “Different pokes for different folks,” but that didn’t really work for me. “Pokes” was too mild. Tim’s T-shirt were offensive and I wanted something equally offensive. I decided to go with “Different Cities, Different Titties,” which changes the meaning of Länder (countries) but keeps everything else more or less the same. Most importantly, it’s the kind of stupid thing that Tim might put on a T-shirt.

One of the biggest challenges with this film was dealing with obscenities. You might think that German would be a great language for obscenity, but it can't hold a candle to English when it comes to flat-out, blue-streak swearing. German leans heavily on Scheiß (shit) to convey most of the vulgar sentiments that Germans have to offer. The use of "fuck" is limited to the sexual act, and when intended as an obscenity, it is usually spoken in English. Arsch (ass) is also used a lot in German. So much so that Mozart actually named one of his canons, "Leck mich im Arsch." This translates literal to "lick me in the ass," but would translate more idiomatically to "kiss my ass." Clearly Mozart was in a nasty mood that day. Here, I had to use my imagination, and choose the obscenity that the average teenager would be most likely to use in a given situation. The problem is compounded a bit by the fact that girls don’t swear like boys do, but I decided that these girls were a little more foul-mouthed than average, especially Vicky. I took my cues from Sex and the City, with Inken as Carrie, Vicky as Samantha (of course), and Lena a little like Charlotte (Miranda gets lost in the shuffle).

Songs present a special problem in translation. If you translate the words literally, you usually lose the rhyme. Ideally, you want the translation to read like songs lyrics, yet still make sense in context. One of the best examples of this I have ever seen is in the subtitles for The Legend of Paul and Paula. Here, the lyrics of the songs by the band, die Puhdys, are translated almost verbatim and yet still rhyme. The British version of the Mädchen, Mädchen subtitles don't even try to maintain the rhyme, but I wasn't going to be daunted. I managed to come up with a pretty good translation, but I don't think the lyrics are going to win any Grammys. More problematic were the little rhymes that Inken and Vicky were creating for the personals ad. Most problematic of all was Schwengeln drängeln, which translates to something along the lines of  “pushy penises.”  After wrestling with it for a while, I decided to give up. It would have to stay “pushy penises.” It doesn’t mean much when Vicky first suggests it, but it doesn’t seem to mean much to Inken either. Later on when she uses it in a sentence, the meaning becomes clearer.

I am not 100% satisfied with my translation, but maybe no one ever is. I do think it’s a better translation than any of the others that I’ve encountered. It captures the spirit of the film and the humor in most scenes. If you have a copy of the movie and would like to add these subtitles to it, you can download them here:

Mädchen, Mädchen subtitles.


jasper said...

Great post.Learning different languages is hard but fun.We were able to grasps the culture of every languages we translate.A lost in Danish translation or any translation should not hinder us to know exactly about one's history and culture.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

Unknown said...

German is the most language that is spoken by almost 2 billion peoples around the world. Learning this language would give one self confidence to look the world in a different perspective. You have made me to realize that in a moment on reading this article. Thanks for sharing this in here. By the way you are running a great blog.

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Thanks for sharing the excellent thoughts on German language. Hope everyone who visit this blog will not move to next without reading.
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Moritz R said...

Great job, Jim!

Unknown said...

Great post! I didn't even think that translating a movie of comedy and sex would be this difficult but I think that was fun though. Maybe you should seek a help from a subtitle translator.

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