Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's in a Name?

Does the title of a movie or television show make a difference? Can it affect the way you feel about it?

Germany gets a lot of its entertainment from the United States, Great Britain and Scandinavia. When Germany imports foreign movies or TV shows, it frequently translates the title into German. Those translations often alter the meaning of the show. I was reminded of this as I was watching The Avengers, a 1960s TV show from the UK. The German title is Mit Schirm, Charme, und Melone. It literally means: With an Umbrella, Charm and a Bowler Hat. It refers to the lead male character, John Steed. Mr. Steed carries an umbrella, has a certain degree of charm, and wears a bowler hat. The German title suggests that show is primarily about Mr. Steed.

I don't know about you, but I watched the show because of the female lead, Emma Peel, played by the brilliant Diana Rigg. Mrs. Peel was clever, resourceful, beautiful, athletic and witty. She was emancipated long before Women's Liberation, Police Woman, Cagney and Lacey, or Oprah. She could hold her own against any man while still being feminine. It wasn't as if Mr. Steed was the key to the show's success. In fact, the show never retained its level of popularity once Ms. Rigg left. So why have a title that emphasizes the male character while neglecting the female? Perhaps, a bit of German male chauvinism?

Not all title translations are this bad. For example, Laurel and Hardy are known as “Dick und Doof,“ (Fat and Dumb). This is certainly a more descriptive, if not funnier name for the two comedians. Moreover, the German title for the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds is simply Blondinen Bevorzugt (Blonds Prefer). In this case, I find the German title more appropriate since the film deals with Marilyn Monroe, a blond, trying to snag a rich husband. The movie doesn't care an iota what the gentleman prefer.

American television shows do a bit better than films when it come to retaining their original titles. For example, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Die Simpsons are known by their English titles. However, Little House on the Prairie is known as Unsere Kleine Farm, (Our Small Farm) and Home Improvement has the cumbersome title of Hör mal, Wer da hämmert (Listen to who's hammering there).

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