One of the first things that you notice when you turn on the TV, go to a bookshop or even just glance at a movie poster in Germany is that for some reason almost everything has a different title here. And I don’t just mean that they’ve translated the English title into German – translate a German title back and as often as not you get a long sentence which doesn’t hint at the plot of the film, or game, or book, but states it outright with zero subtlety or coyness. Remember how hilarious everyone found it when Samuel L Jackson starred in Snakes on a Plane? In German, that would simply be par for the course.
Airplane! is a good example. It’s a deceptively simple title in English – all it tells you is that the film involves an aeroplane, while the exclamation mark quietly suggests it’s a lighthearted comedy. The title could be translated into German simply as Flugzeug! or Das Flugzeug!, but clearly that wasn’t good enough for the German localisation team. Instead, they gave us Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug – “The Unbelievable Journey in a Wacky Aeroplane“. Now we know that not only does it involve an aeroplane, but it involves a wacky one, making a journey which, we are told, it may be impossible to believe in.
This isn’t an isolated case either. Laurel and Hardy, poor chaps, get boiled down to their most obvious characteristics. In Germany, they’re “Dick und Doof” – Fat and Stupid. It’s hard to provide nuanced characterisation in a short, often silent, slapstick comedy, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to them than that.
Spirited Away is “Chihiros Journey to a Magic Land”. WALL-E is Der letzte räumt die Erde auf – something like “The Last Tidying of Earth”. On a more adult note, In Brugges becomes Brügge sehen… und sterben? which is the frankly brilliant See Brugges… and Die? (This title, I think, sounds best if you say “and Die?” in a confused, inquistive voice)
While Life of Brian and Meaning of Life stayed the same, Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Germany is Die Ritter der Kokosnuß, or “The Knights of the Coconut” – an accurate title, I suppose, since there are more coconuts in the film than grails, though it’s an odd part of the film to focus on. (And Now For Something Completely Different became The Wonderful World of Gravity, but that’s more inscrutable than literal)
The best title, however? The one that inspired this whole post? That belongs to the otherwise justly obscure 1994 TV movie Baby Brokers, which by the time it reached Tele5 had become Eine Mutter verkauft ihr Baby – “A Mother Sells Her Baby”*. There it is – the platonic ideal of a film title. There is nothing this title hides about the film. It is perfect.
* IMDb also lists Kids for Cash – Eltern ohne Skrupel – “Kids for Cash – Parents Without Scruples” – as an alternative title. This is also a pretty good title; I especially like the way they’ve decided to title it half in English and half in German, as well as the understatement of suggesting that a mother who sells her baby is “without scruples”. Also, I like the word “scruples”.