What’s in a (Film) Name?

Continuing my fascination with translation…

It amuses and bemuses me, sometimes, to watch the titles of books and films move from language to language. I imagine most titles get translated pretty closely, but sometimes there is the odd exception.

Tengoku to Jigoku

For example, if I look at the IMDb page for the international titles of the Akira Kurosawa film Tengoku to Jigoku, I see that for most languages where I can readily work out the meaning, the titles have stuck pretty close to the original Heaven and Hell. France seems to have also used Between Heaven and Hell, which is almost the same idea. A common English language title is High and Low: similar, but it loses the feeling of unbearable heat that was so much a motif of the film (down there in the slums of Tokyo was “hell” for a reason).

But then there’s Spain: El infierno del odio (“The Hell of Hatred”), Italy: Anatomia di un rapimento (“Anatomy of a Kidnapping”), and one of the UK titles: The Ransom (really??). The Greek title seems to be The Killer of Tokyo. These titles work, one wonders about the marketing decisions that prefer these titles to the original (High and Low falls in that category, too).

I started thinking about this today while looking up the 1950 film noir Dark City, notable mostly for being Charlton Heston’s first leading role.


The synopsis, from IMDb (written by Rob Crawford):

Danny Haley’s bookie operation is shut down, so he and his pals need money; when Danny meets Arthur Winant, a sucker from out of town, he decoys him into a series of poker games where eventually Winant loses $5000 that isn’t his…then hangs himself. But it seems Winant had a shadowy, protective elder brother who believes in personal revenge. And each of the card players in turn feels a faceless doom inexorably closing in. Dark streets and sexy torch-singer Fran lend ambience.

The IMDb photo gallery features several international posters for the film, which gave me a few international titles. The English versions are either my transliteration, or Google’s:

Ciudad en Sombras (City in Shadows)


La Citta’ Nera (The Black City)


Stadt im Dunkel (City in the Dark)


i Storbyens Mørke (In the Darkness of the Big City)


La Main qui Venge (The Hand that Avenges)


Interesting that neither the Spanish nor Italian titles use the word for dark. I guess La Ciudad Oscura doesn’t sound as dramatic? Or perhaps not quite right. But what’s up with the French title? Again, its marketing, no doubt, though to me The Hand that Avenges sounds more like a horror film, and even more so if you translate the French as The Avenging Hand.

I don’t have a profound point to make here, I just thought it was interesting. Enjoy the posters!

All film posters from IMDb

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