For one of my classes recently, I needed to get the Japanese movie version of Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When I looked for it on Amazon Japan, I was a little confused because they didn’t seem to have it. Instead they kept offering me a DVD titled “Arabama monogatari” (「アラバマ物語」). It took me a while to figure out that this “Alabama Story,” as it literally translates, was indeed the DVD I had been looking for; the title just happened to be a little, well, modified.
Japanese society is well-known for its skill at localizing foreign things. This applies not only to cars, curry and kanji characters, but seems to hold for movie titles as well. The sociolinguist Fumio Inoue in his 2001 book 「日本語は生き残れるか」 (“Nihongo wa Ikinokoreruka?” “Will Japanese Survive?”) had a close look at a large number of foreign movie titles and identified three basic strategies to accommodate them to the domestic box office.
The first one is what he calls iyaku (意訳), a (very) free Japanese translation based on the contents or overall atmosphere of a film. Examples are the 1940 remake of “Waterloo Bridge,” which was featured in Japan as “Aishū” (「哀愁」, “Pathos”), or the 1955 American/British coproduction “Summertime,” which was presented to Japanese audiences as “Ryojō” (「旅情」, “Emotions of a Traveler”). Note that in both cases the new title has little in common with the original English one. The Japanese rendition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a similar case.
A second, more straightforward, strategy is to attempt a direct translation of the original title. Billy Wilder’s would-be adultery comedy “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) premiered in Japan as “Nana Nen me no Uwaki” (「七年目の浮気」, “The Seventh Year Affair”), which is basically the same as the English title, if a little more explicit as to the itch. Even more faithful to the original is Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which in 1963 invaded Japan exactly as they were, “Tori” (「鳥」, “Birds”).
The third strategy — if strategy is still the right word — is to make no effort to translate anything at all, and simply sell a film with a katakana rendition of the original title. “Psycho,” for instance, another Hitchcock classic, in 1960 frightened Japan as “Saiko” (「サイコ」). Or the only film ever to combine linguistics and love romance, “My Fair Lady,” which had the (more or less) Japanese title “Mai Fea Redi” (「マイ・フェア・レディ」).
Categorizing a larger number of titles from the 1950s to the ’90s, Inoue found that free renditions were highly popular back in the ’60s, but later came to be surpassed by katakana titles, which in the ’80s and ’90s accounted for around half of all titles. Direct translation had its heydays in the’50s, when it was used for around 40 percent of films in total, but by the ’90s the method was used for less than 5 percent.
In order to see how things have developed since the 2000s, we did a little follow-up survey. We looked at around 100 foreign film titles shown in Japan in 2000, 2006 and 2012 each, and counted the most common import strategies. As somewhat expected, the data from 2000 and 2006 are still very much in line with Inoue’s findings. More than 60 percent leave the original title as it is, just over 30 percent come as free renditions, and less than 10 percent show an effort to directly translate the English title.
The data from 2012 show a somewhat surprising development. Now the largest number of films are those with a free rendition of the title. These make up more than 50 percent, largely surpassing the 38 percent of titles that have been left as they are. Here are a few recent examples of such free renditions: The comedy drama “We Bought a Zoo” was shown in Japan under the title “Shiawase no Kiseki” (「幸せのキセキ」, “Miracle of Happiness”), the film adaptation of John le Carre’s eponymous “The Constant Gardener” was reinvented as “Nairobi no Hachi” (「ナイロビの蜂」, “The Bee from Nairobi”), and the contents of the marijuana charade “Homegrown” were made a little more explicit to Japanese audiences by retitling the picture as “Wairudo sumōkāzu” (「ワイルド・スモーカーズ」, “Wild Smokers”). This last example is particularly interesting in that it does, in fact, come as a katakana title, but one that was fabricated in Japan. It seems as though the translators wanted to assure people could get a clue of what the film is basically about, while at the same time not spoil the foreign feel of it.
One thing we can understand from the recent revival of free renditions is that the somewhat confusing Japanese title of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is actually quite up to date. And if there was to be a remake of the film anytime soon, it would probably not be playing in Japan under the katakana title 「ツー・キル・ア・モッキングバード」, nor would anyone make an attempt to directly translate it into something like, say, 「鶯を殺すな」 (Don’t Kill the Nightingale”).