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How Movie Titles Get Lost in Translation

International markets for Hollywood movies are more lucrative than ever, but the quality of the translations has suffered tremendously over the past couple of decades. We’ve seen examples of lousy translations from both movie titles and subtitles, and they can end up confusing or even comical. The Chinese opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron was a fiasco due to poor translation. What happened?  

Localization, the process of adapting a work for a foreign market, has been going on for decades in the movie business. But if the names seem increasingly obtuse or just weird, there’s a reason for that: the bottom fell out on the translation market.

Like most other areas of skilled labor, film translation has changed substantially in the past few decades. Dean Remy, of GlobalVision International, a US-based translation outfit, doesn’t bother with movies anymore for exactly that reason. “We've done a number of Sony productions in the past, but we've kind of moved away from that,” he says. His translators are heavily accredited, with advanced degrees and translation certifications, and they simply can’t translate for a penny a word.

Atlas Obscura explains the painstaking process of properly translating a film, which involves timing, cultural knowledge, and judgement calls, as well as fluency. That kind of work doesn’t come cheap. Or you can use sweatshop labor or even a computer and save some money, but you’ll end up with something like Backstroke of the West.

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