Aaaand Action!: Remembering Translation and Localization in Movies and TV Shows


Conan the Barbarian (1982)


Do you remember your favorite movies and shows in your native language when you were a kid? I remember Las Tortugas Ninja (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Los Magníficos (The A-Team) and Conan El Bárbaro (Conan the Barbarian) in Spanish and I loved them. That is, until I saw them for the first time in English. Then, everything changed. The emotions expressed in the voice over were not the same in Spanish as they were in English. Culturally, we express differently, especially over 25 years ago when social media had not had the cultural impact that it has today. Moreover, the translations were not all that accurate and localization was still taking baby steps within the industry, and unfortunately, since I knew both languages as a child, that was very disappointing. I’m sure most of you who are translators have had similar experiences when watching movies or TV shows in your downtime. If you have, you probably were not able to escape disappointment and/or frustration when you realized you could have done a better job at translating that movie or show.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes we are almost forced to translate or localize something because it simply won’t make much sense to the viewer. For example, I remember watching one of my favorite movies as a child, The NeverEnding Story, in English with Spanish subtitles. I had absolutely no problem with the fact that the name of the boy who reads the book is Bastian in English, while it is Sebastián in the Spanish subtitles. And that was ok, especially if you consider that the movie is based on a German book written by Michael Ende, which the movie is named after. Again, I never had a problem with that because Bastian is as close to Sebastián as it gets. In this case, Bastian is the main character, and the translator wanted to establish a connection between the viewer and the character. That way, the movie has a better effect on the audience and, of course, can be an even bigger box office success.

Nevertheless, when we talk about translation and localization in the film industry, many times we have to stay up-to-date with the way the industry has evolved. Particularly, social media, the expansion of bilingual audiences, and the Internet as a whole have contributed to a change in perception of movies and TV shows. For instance, there is a very good chance that Bastian’s name would not have been changed to Sebastián in 2016, but back in 1984 it made perfect sense. In addition, nowadays it would be weird to have a movie called José Potter instead of Harry Potter. This is an example of how the industry has evolved to culturally allow translators to decide whether or not the name of a character or even a movie should be changed.

I remember watching Tiburón (which translates to shark in English) when I was a kid. I am sure you already guessed that the movie I am talking about is Jaws. I know that there are other translations of that movie title, but I will stick to this one because it was the most commonly used translation for Latin America. It was a smash hit. People loved it and nobody ever questioned its name even after they saw ads for the movie with the name Jaws in English.


Jaws (1975) in Spanish


On the other hand, the title for the 1979 movie Alien was left in English and I think it was an excellent decision. For this particular movie I know that, depending on the country, some translation and localization companies decided to add a line to the title, which resulted in Alien: El octavo pasajero (which translates to Alien: The Eighth Passenger). It was also a success, but most Spanish speakers simply know the movie, and the sequels that came years later, as Alien.

I always like to watch movies in their original language with subtitles in the target language (partly because as a translator I like to translate and compare my translations with those of the movie as I am watching it).

One of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Simpsons, was a huge exception for me. I always like to watch movies in their original language with subtitles in the target language (partly because as a translator I like to translate and compare my translations with those of the movie as I am watching it). However, in this case, I have to say that The Simpsons was, and still is, the best example of translation and localization —aside from the voice acting, which was perfect— in TV shows that I have ever seen. The names of the characters were often changed and/or translated and many of the jokes were completely changed but perfectly adapted to the Hispanic audience. In fact, it is the only show to date that I refuse to watch in English, simply because I like the Spanish version a lot better. As translators, we not only have the choice to be creative but also a responsibility to make something visual convey the same emotions through sound and text that the source language was meant to convey.

Translation and localization has evolved a lot from what we were used to 25 years ago in the film industry. We would love to hear examples from you about movies and TV shows in different languages that you loved or hated because of the translation and/or localization that they chose.

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