Steve Jobs is a cop who must go undercover at a strip club to solve the murder of a beautiful young dancer. But can he resist the charms of the club’s manager, and prime suspect, Sabrina LaGrange?
As you probably know, this is not the plot of Jobs, the hagiographic film of the Apple co-founder that opened last weekend in the US. (That summary does, however, sound more interesting than “Sociopath in turtleneck sells shiny telephones”.) But this might well be what the unsuspecting Russian cinema-goers will be expecting when they see that Ashton Kutcher is starring in a new film called Jobs: Empire of Temptation. That’s right, the Russian title of the movie, Dzhobs: Imperiia soblazna, makes it sound like a soft-focus erotic thriller, not a tech and tantrums biopic.
Perhaps the distributors thought the title needed this racy edge to entice jaded Russian cinephiles? But this is the country which built the world’s first iPhone memorial and where iPads are objects of veneration — in Moscow a four-hour interpretive mime show about Steve Jobs would be a sell-out.
The problem goes deeper: film titles are routinely translated into Russian quite bizarrely, twisting the meaning of the original title and misrepresenting the film. Can you guess the true identity of The Drunkest County in the World, Sexaholic, and Isle of the Damned? They certainly sound like very different films from the English-language originals — Lawless, Solitary Man and Shutter Island.
Granted, translating the titles of films and books can be hard, especially when they’re allusive or punning. (It's nicely meta that Lost in Translation is pretty untranslatable — in Russian it's called The Difficulties of Translation.) But whoever is in charge of “localising” foreign titles seem unafraid to produce versions that are misleading, patronisingly spoilertastic or just plain wrong.
First, the errors. Tarantino’s overlooked grindhouse schlockfest Death Proof is not, pace Russian translators, about finding the Proof of Death (Dokazatel'stvo smerti), but about being unkillable. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to sit through it. But translating retro film noir The Black Dahlia as The Black Orchid (Chernaia orkhideia) smacks of real laziness. Sure, maybe your average Russian on the street doesn’t knows which flower a georgina is (the Russian for dahlia), but it’s not as if dahlias are a common topic here in the west.
“Silver Linings Playbook was called My Boyfriend is a Psycho — a title which leads you to expect a zany comedy in the style of I Married An Axe-Murderer”
Remember worthy but underwhelming spy thriller Fair Game with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn? No, me neither. But the pun in the title — acceptable victim and legitimate competition — is instantly recognisable to native speakers. It’s tricky to render this ambivalence in Russian, but calling it Game Without Rules (Igra bez pravil, which has hints of no-holds-barred fighting about it) ignores both meanings.
In its defence, the Russian title does capture the knife-in-the-back skullduggery depicted in the movie. But it completely ignores the title’s duty to have a subtle relationship with the content. Naming a movie is not like labelling a jam jar: there’s more at stake than accurately reflecting the content. It’s about creating a mood, activating certain associations and establishing expectations.
Take Silver Linings Playbook. Not everyone’s a fan: to many, its ambition outstripped its ability. But like it or not, you have to acknowledge what they’re doing with the title, which is simultaneously familiar — we all know what a silver lining is — and obscure — what have silver linings got do with a playbook, and, if you’re British, what the bloody hell’s a playbook? This air of mysterious familiarity is stock-in-trade for the sort of indie whimsy the film aspires to (500 Days of Summer anyone?). But in Russia the film was called My Boyfriend is a Psycho (Moi paren – psikh) — a title which, once you’ve swallowed its lumpen, semi-offensive obviousness, leads you to expect a zany comedy in the style of I Married an Axe-Murderer. Likewise, the studied exoticism of the title Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — a literal translation is perfectly possible in Russian — is replaced with a sense of harrowing heat-of-battle tension when you call it Captain Corelli’s Choice (Vybor Kapitana Korelli).
“It's like calling Jurassic Park 'Genetically Engineered Dinosaurs Run Amok in a Theme Park'”
My Boyfriend is a Psycho and Captain Corelli’s Choice are both guilty of another common nomenclatural faux pas — giving the plot away. Ashton first suffered at the hands of the translators with 2012 sex comedy No Strings Attached. Everyone knows that, in movieland, friends with benefits will end up together, but retitling the movie More Than Sex (Bol’she chem seks) lays it all out there from the very beginning, sacrificing any sense of jeopardy. Dan in Real Life is a bad title for a bad movie (it was a rare flop for Steve Carrell), but Falling in Love With Your Brother’s Bride (Vliubit’sia v nevestu brata) is barely a title at all: it’s a bad pitch for a bad movie. It’s like calling Jurassic Park “Genetically Engineered Dinosaurs Run Amok in a Theme Park”. Though that actually sounds quite good.
Maybe all this wasn’t such a problem back when Some Like It Hot was wowing Soviet crowds as Only Girls in Jazz (V dzhaze tol’ko devushki). But now cinemas are under real threat from online streaming and pirate torrents, so it’s vital for the film industry and for urban infrastructure that the under-30s switch off their computers, buy some popcorn and take a seat in the dark. And this web-savvy, more or less English-speaking generation knows what the film is really called, so every patronising or nonsensical title discredits the legitimate film structures a little more, inviting the suspicion that distributors think that viewers are idiots.
It becomes clear that what’s going on is a deliberate dumbing down and sexing up in the hope of luring the coveted teenage demographic into theatres. Grown-up US ensemble comedy Friends with Kids is transformed into a romp called Kids Don’t Get in the Way of Sex (Deti seksu ne pomekha); Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s earnest subcontinental Tess of the D’Urbervilles revamp, becomes Beauty from the Slums (Krasavitsa iz trushchob), a deliberate echo of Frieda Pinto’s more marketable hit Millionaire from the Slums (Millioner iz trushchob), aka Slumdog Millionaire.
These attempts at populism are of a piece with other recent attempts to kickstart the Russian film industry, in particular the rise of big budget patriotic blockbusters, like the forthcoming epic Stalingrad, which seek to pull in both Soviet Union nostalgists and teenagers looking for big guns and bigger explosions. Although the decision-makers are different in both cases, the result is the same: Russian cinema is losing touch with the intelligent, arthouse sensibility for which it is famed, in favour of a certain brutish Hollywood obviousness: if the current distributors were marketing Tarkovsky today, they’d tell him to relabel Solaris as Sex in Space. In the short term, dumbing down might work. But in the long term, as cinema fights for its place among emerging media, this sort of lowest-common-denominator pandering is only going to hurt it.
How it can be stopped is a mystery. Perhaps this is another case for sexy super-cop Steve Jobs.