Asian humorist Nury Vittachi (AKA Mister Jam) wrote a hilarious piece the other day, about the way American movie titles are translated in Chinese by fast-buck hungry distributors, who have little respect for the product they release, and even less respect for their audiences. Although one has to wonder whether some of the titles he writes about actually sound better, or more culturally relevant, in Chinese.

Some of his examples:

- “The Sparrow Becomes the Empress” is “Pretty Woman”
- “Don’t Ask Who I Am” is “The English Patient”
- “This Hit Man Is Not As Cold As He Thought” is “The Professional” (but wait! “The Professional” is the English translation for the original French title “Leon”).
- “Six Naked Pigs” is “The Full Monty”

But more outrageous are the way broad American comedies are translated. After the Success of “Ace Ventura” all of Jim Carrey’s movies afterwards were titles as variations of The Ace (or Trump Card) as if they were spin-offs of the same character, and thus “Cable Guy” has become “Trump Card Specialist” and “Liar Liar” turned into “Trump Card Big Liar”. But this next bit tops it all:

The logic veered off track when the first “Austin Powers” movie was released in East Asia as “Trump Card Big Spy”. It starred Mike Myers rather than Jim Carrey, but distributors apparently thought that the fact that it was a completely different human being was too subtle a difference to worry about. Why be fussy? Deranged white guys are deranged white guys.

All white people look the same to the Chinese, don’t they.

Thing are just as sad funny in Israel

Vittachi’s bit reads like a great piece of cultural humor in the States, but foreign movie-goers can only sigh in identification. Most countries translate American titles, especially those based on localized idioms, into something that rarely resembles the source.

Israeli moviegoers, for instance, went into an uproar last summer when Judd Apatow’s heartfelt adult comedy Knocked Up was translated into “The Date That Screwed Me” in Hebrew. Local distributors were overheard saying that the vulgar, teen oriented title, harmed the movie’s box office in Israel. Later, when posters went up publicizing the release of “Superbad” with the Hebrew title of “Super-Horny” film goers protested and persuaded local distributor to reconsider and order up a new batch of posters, leaving the film with its original English title.

Things in the title-translation world in Israel are so bizarre and outrageous that a Facebook group titled “Deport the Hebrew Movie Titles Translators” was formed - 1441 members joined as of February - in which nearly 200 titles are listed where the Hebrew translation either absurdly distorts the original title or just turns it into a bland or vulgar run-of-the mill title.

Some botched-up Hebrew titles:

The Savages
is “Closing the Circle” (or “Closure” if you will)
Evan Almighty is “A Flood of Trouble”
In The Land of Women is “Go Figure Women”
Man About Town is “How To Succeed in Life and Stay Married”
Groundhog Day is “Wake Up Yesterday”
Employee of the Month is “Super Blond”
Are We There Yet? is “Mom is in Love”
The Naked Gun is “The Gun Died Laughing”
George of the Jungle is “The Jungle Died Laughing”
BASEketball is “The Ball Died Laughing” (yup, you guessed it: once one awful title is successful, similar movies will be name-raped in the same manner).

Israelis, one discovers, are nuts for movies with the word “Love” in the title:

Top Gun is “Love in the Sky”
No Reservations is “Love on the Menu”
Swingers is “Love or Sex”
Jesus of Montreal is “Of Love and Hypocrisy”

Metaphors, for instance, are unwelcome on Israeli billboards and marquees.

Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the Western Civilization was named “Dirty Conversations”. His follow up The Barbarian Invasion was named “Soulful Conversations”. Butterfly on a Wheel is “Shattered”, Martian Child is “A World of His Own”, August Rush is “Dancing in the Moonlight”.

And sometimes distributors spit on a what they regard as a piece of art and try with all their might to turn a thoughtful movie into an action thriller. That’s how No Country for Old Men turned up here as “Tough Country”, as if it were a Charles Bronson movie (depressingly, Cormac McCarthy’s novel was translated into Hebrew, while keeping the original title intact, but local distributors didn’t care. And although the Coen Brothers are very much beloved in Israel, the movie, released wide, flopped).

Sometimes Israeli distributors are almost prophetic in their translations:

The Luis Mandoki romantic drama White Palace was translated into “When a Man Loves a Woman” in Hebrew. But then that very same director made the Meg Ryan alcoholic drama, When a Man Loves a Woman forcing local distributor to turn it into “The Love of a Man to a Woman” as to not confuse with the similarly named, though quite different older movie.

Last year, local distribs shortsightedly translated the Richard Gere flick The Hunting Party into “Wanted”. It is still unclear how the upcoming Angelina Jolie actioner, titled Wanted in English, will be named over here.

Sometimes one feels that movie titles in Hebrew are pulled out of a hat, to the enormous amusement of older generation distribs, who are clueless as to how to relate to teens and tweens.

And so The Cell was spiced up into “The Lethal Cell”, Deep Impact is “Lethal Impact”, F/X is “Lethal Stunt”, Poison Ivy is “Lethal Seduction”, Silent Fall is “Lethal Silence”, Soldier is “Lethal Soldier”, and Terminator is “Lethal Mission”.

But Fatal Attraction? That’s “Fateful Courtship”. Damage is “Fateful Attraction”. Total Recall is “Fateful Memory”. Executive Decision is “Fateful Decision”.

The list goes on and on, and sometimes one gets the notion that distributors simply misread (Scarred City turned into “Scared City”) or misunderstood (West Side Story is better known in Israel as “Suburban Story”, even though the story is set-up in midtown Manhattan).

And ironic to the point is parody is the Hebrew title “Lost in Tokyo” which was how Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was translated. Lost indeed.