Having browsed through the German-translated titles of countless American films and TV shows, I really can’t think of a better example of the phrase “lost in translation.” Although Germany consistently releases a couple of good films every year, the lion-share of pop culture in the country comes from its neighbors across the Atlantic. Having lived in Deutschland for a bit, I was a first hand witness of how the movies I had grown to love (or despise in some cases) were marketed to a non-English speaking audience. My biggest take away was a sheer appreciation for the creativity involved in marketing American entertainment.
Take the 80s comedy classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High as a case study of what I’ll term the Lost in Translation effect. Try as you may, it’s simply not possible to come up with a direct translation of this picture’s title into German. Assuming you did, you would mislead the audience by having them believe the film was about some type of sporting event such as a marathon or car race, as the term “fast times” has no additional meaning like it does in English. This would most likely result in a marketing faux pas, disappointing the intended viewers who would see nothing more than Sean Penn pulling various acts of mischief and Judge Reinhold driving his car in a pirate costume. So the powers that be opted for the title Ich glaub’ ich steh’ im Wald, a slang type of phrase that translates to: I Believe I Am Standing in the Forest.
The first thing you will probably ask yourself is why on Earth anyone would decide to name this movie I Believe I Am Standing in the Forest. Aside from some trees in the dugout scene where Damone takes Jennifer Jason Leigh’s virginity, there really aren’t many nature scenes in this film. So without a background in German this appears to be the world’s crappiest name for a movie. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t watch this movie if it had such a title and just to think how I would have deprived myself of Damone’s infamous keyboard scarf! The catch here is that the Lost in Translation effect works both ways. From an outsiders point of view the name sounds silly, however, in German it’s a phrase that translates roughly to “I’m really confused / I’m messed up / I’m dazed and confused.”
If you take the time to analyze this choice further, it’s not a bad one. The German education system is different than America’s so putting High School in the title wouldn’t be a good idea. Imagine, as an American, if the movie were called Fast Times at Gymnasium Ridgemont. That’s kind of, but not exactly, how the title would sound in reverse to a German, so using High School as part of the title won’t work. We’ve already established that the phrase “fast times” doesn’t translate into German, so what would you call this movie?
Not all of the movie takes place in high school, it’s just the common place that most of the characters congregate so you don’t really need to mention the school. Although it’s a comedy, and not to be taken too seriously, one of the major themes is the ups and downs of adolescence. In this light, I’m Feeling Confused or I Don’t Know Where I Am in this World or I am Lost in the Woods Without a Guide is not a bad attempt at summarizing the movie in a few words.
With this example in mind you can hopefully understand the challenge posed to marketers when trying to sell American films and TV shows to a German-speaking audience. My intent for this article was provide some insight into the hurdle that German marketers face but also to share with you how hilarious some of these titles sound when you look at the literal translations. Please share with your friends if you liked the post. Enjoy!