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Puns and plot spoilers: How English movie titles are translated into Italian

If you browse Italian cinema listings or Netflix, you'll notice that the titles of English-language films often have unexpected translations.

Take note of the translation of you're watching an English-language movie in Italy.
Take note of the translation of you're watching an English-language movie in Italy. Photo by Martin BUREAU / AFP.

It’s of course normal for the titles of books, films and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and convey the sense and message of the work, rather than go for a word-for-word translation.

But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns, some English-to-Italian titles may surprise you. Here are a few of our favourites.

The very literal/spoilery ones

HitchHitch – Lui sì che capisce le donne (Hitch – He really gets women). In the 2005 romcom Hitch, Will Smith plays a pickup artist coach who finds himself falling in love. The translator clearly thought the original left a little too much to the imagination, so decided to put the premise up top.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindSe mi lasci ti cancello (If you leave me I’ll erase you). It seems Charlie Kaufman’s title was too whimsical and open to interpretation for the translators of this twisty sci-fi love story, so they went for a plot summary, impressively managing to spoiler the entire film in the title.

Intolerable CrueltyPrima ti sposo, poi ti rovino (First I’ll marry you, then I’ll ruin you). Catherine Zeta Jones is a serial marry-for-money divorcée who meets her match in shark-like divorce attorney George Clooney – or does she? That’s right: first she’ll marry you, then she’ll ruin you.

READ ALSO: Ten of the best TV shows and films to help you learn Italian

Clueless Ragazze a Beverly Hills (Girls in Beverly Hills). We’re guessing the Italian distributors weren’t sure what to do with this ’90’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma set in one of LA’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, so went with a ‘does what it says on the tin’ strategy.

The inexplicable ones

How to Lose Friends and Alienate PeopleStar System – Se non ci sei non esisti (Star System – If you aren’t there, you don’t exist). This film based on a memoir by the right-wing British polemicist Toby Young received middling reviews, but does at least have Kirsten Dunst and Simon Pegg. What a Star System is and why not being there invalidates your existence is beyond our powers of deduction.

The Producers Per favore, non toccate le vecchiette (Please, don’t touch the old women). This classic about two hacks who cook up a scam to write the worst ever Broadway musical – naturally, about Hitler – that becomes an accidental hit features old women in the most marginal of roles (rich scam victims), so their prominence here is confusing. It does at least have the alternative title The Producers – Una gaia commedia neonazista (The Producers – A gay/gleeful neonazi comedy), which they should have gone with from the start.

READ ALSO: Six Italian series worth watching beyond My Brilliant Friend

The Place Beyond the Pines – Come un tuono (Like a thunderclap). The Place Beyond the Pines is apparently the Native American meaning of Schenectady, the city where this melancholy crime drama is set. It seems the Italian title comes from the film’s line, ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder,’ which makes more sense in context but sounds a little random outside of it.

The untranslatable/completely different ones

Die Hard Trappola di cristallo (Crystal Trap). This is admittedly a tough one and they didn’t do badly here, even if they didn’t manage to find a replacement pun; ‘Crystal Trap’ is also the title used by the French translators. The action involves a hostage rescue in a glass skyscraper: it’s a crystal trap. Simple.

Alan Rickman Cast GIF

Groundhog Day Ricomincio da capo (I’m starting over). Like the words Hoover or Jacuzzi, Groundhog Day is a phrase that didn’t have any particular meaning in English until this film became popular enough to give it one. The distributors didn’t want to count on that becoming the case in Italy so opted for their go-to: a description of the plot.

Trading Places Una poltrona per due (One armchair for two). This identity-swap film starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd became an unexpected Christmas favourite in Italy, and is still regularly screened on primetime TV on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. There’s no scene where they’re competing for the same armchair, though.

The (attempted) improvements

Home Alone Mamma, ho perso l’aereo (Mummy, I missed the plane). We’re guessing the translator of this film title saw the success of the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which was translated directly into Italian, and saw no reason to mess with a winning format.

The HolidayL’amore non va in vacanza (Love doesn’t go on holiday). See what they did there?! Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz might think they’re just taking a little break from their lonely lives by swapping homes for Christmas, but Love isn’t taking any time off! 

READ ALSO: Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas

Airplane! L’aereo più pazzo del mondo (The craziest plane in the world). Foreign distributors are just trying to do their job by convincing as many people to see a film as possible so we can’t really fault them for going with a little hyperbole here. In fairness, there are a lot of nutty characters on that plane.

The English to English ones

The Princess Diaries – Pretty Princess. The translators have taken an already bland title and given it a lobotomy. We can only assume that while the word ‘diaries’ might not be familiar to Italian audiences, they were counting on most people knowing ‘pretty’ and ‘princess’. Maybe they also liked the alliteration?

Confessions of a shopaholic – I Love Shopping. 0/10, try again.

Do you have a favourite Italian movie title translation that isn’t listed here? Please share it with us in the comments below.

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REVEALED: The Italian versions of 11 famous English sayings

From full barrels and drunk wives to catching fish, the Italian language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

REVEALED: The Italian versions of 11 famous English sayings

Though lots of popular English sayings are largely similar (or even identical) to their Italian equivalents, that’s not always the case. 

In fact, some Italian translations of famous English idioms can leave language learners perplexed.

Here are a few of our favourite examples.

Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco

We all sometimes get ahead of ourselves and start making plans based on something that’s not happened yet (and in some cases may not be likely to happen). 

While the English ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ is as good a self-reminder as you’ll find, you may also add the Italian version to your repertoire: ‘non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco’, which literally means ‘don’t say cat if you haven’t got it in a bag’.

READ ALSO: ‘Anglicismi’: The English words borrowed into Italian – and what they mean

Why anyone would want to get a cat into a bag eludes us, but here’s an iconic clip of Giovanni Trapattoni using the expression when manager of the Republic of Ireland’s football team:

In alto mare

If, with just one week to go till the start of your summer holidays, you still have no idea what you’re going to do or where you’re going to go, you could definitely say that your holiday plans are ‘in alto mare’.

While literally translatable as ‘on the high seas’, the idiom is the equivalent to the English ‘up in the air’. Same issues, different natural elements.

Due gocce d’acqua

While an English speaker may describe two people that are closely similar either in appearance or character as ‘two peas in a pod’, an Italian would scrap the grocery reference and describe them as ‘two drops of water’. 

Vuotare il sacco

If you’re organising a surprise birthday party for a friend of yours, you may ask all guests to be extra careful and ensure they don’t ‘spill the beans’. 

READ ALSO: Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

But if you’re throwing the party in Italy, you’ll have to ask them not to ‘empty the bag’, or ‘vuotare il sacco‘, with the sacco figuratively protecting the big secret from indiscreet ears.

Prendere due piccioni con una fava

The Italian ‘prendere due piccioni con fava’ is actually very similar to the English ‘kill two birds with one stone’, except that the former specifies the type of bird – two pigeons – and uses a different hunting technique: a trap using a fava bean as bait. 

An Italian hunting masterclass, clearly.

Pigeons in Milan's Piazza Duomo

Catching ‘two pigeons with one fava bean’ will save you a lot of time in your Italian daily life. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Ogni morte di papa

The death of a pope is not something that happens very often. Actually, you might even say that it happens ‘once in a blue moon’.

Chi dorme non piglia pesci 

Here’s one of Italian dads’ favourite sayings as they try to impress upon their children that much more is achieved by early, decisive action than by idleness. 

READ ALSO: ‘I’m not Onassis’: Seven things Italian dads say and what they mean

‘Those who sleep don’t catch any fish’ is the Italian equivalent of the well-known ‘early bird gets the worm’.

Per il rotto della cuffia

If someone made three mistakes in their Italian driving licence theory quiz, you may say they passed by the ‘skin of their teeth’ as only three errors are allowed.

But an Italian might say that they passed the exam ‘per il rotto della cuffia’, literally meaning ‘thanks to the rupture of the helmet’.

A knight on horseback

Popular Italian expression ‘per il rotto della cuffia’ stems from a mediaeval game known as Saracen Joust. Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP

The saying stems from an old medieval game, the Saracen Joust, where a knight on horseback would have to hit a target with a swinging arm. If the arm hit the rider’s helmet and broke it but did not unseat him, the rider would have gotten away ‘per il rotto della cuffia’. 

Come il giorno e la notte

When two things are nothing alike, you might say they’re like ‘chalk and cheese’, but an Italian will surely say they’re ‘come il giorno e la notte’, that is to say ‘like day and night’.

La botte piena e la moglie ubriaca

Sometimes, you just can’t have everything you want at the same time and you must choose between one or the other. 

So, you ‘can’t have your cake and eat it too’ in pretty much the same way Italians might say you can’t have ‘a full barrel and a drunk wife’. 

Non sputare nel piatto dove mangi

In Italian, someone who ‘spits into the plate they eat from’ is ungrateful or behaves badly towards the people they receive help from, much like someone who ‘bites the hand that feeds them’ does.