We've Got Hollywood Covered

Translating ‘Colombiana': How Not to Include ‘Penis’ in Your Movie Title Overseas

In Taiwan, the local translation team innocently decided to call ”Colombiana“ ”Hei-lan-jiao“ — the local pronunciation for penis!

Puns are fine, but don't go too far: that's the advice the government has for film distributors of foreign product in Taiwan.

It's de rigueur, of course, that when it comes to translating titles of Hollywood films into French, or German, Japanese, or Chinese, one must make sure to check with the local censors first.

But the Taiwanese distributors of the upcoming film "Colombiana" — starring "Avatar" actress Zoe Saldana — learned this the hard way the other day when they were informed by the public morals minders that the first Chinese-language title they offered up in Taiwan was, how shall we say, a no-no.

Hollywood movies usually get fairly good translations when their titles move to overseas markets, and the distributors try to keep the original sense of the English title — but sometimes things go awry.

If you've ever spent much time in Japan, you will know how some Hollywood product gets "translated" into weird nihongo. Talk about lost in translation! But it's all in fun and no harm is ever intended.

To give you an example, in Taiwan, a few years ago, the Tom Hanks vehicle "The Green Mile" was shown at movie theaters across the nation, but with a Chinese-language title that called it "The Green Miracle." It just made better (poetic) sense to frame it that way in Chinese. Calling it "The Green Kilometer" just didn't make the cut.

When translators are asked to render English movie titles into Chinese or Japanese, they must have a deft touch and mind their p's and q's as well, especially when it comes to public morals, such as they are.

In the recent case of "Colombiana," the local translation team inocently decided to call it "Hei-lan-jiao" (黑蘭嬌) in Mandarin, which literally means “black orchid beauty.”

Nothing wrong so far. You couldn't ask for a more poetic or eye-catching title. But there was one catch that the Catchplay distribution company in Taipei didn't figure into the equation.

The Chinese ''pronunciation'' of the new title sounds a bit like the Taiwanese dialect pronunciation for "dick." Well, penis. Can I say that here?

You see, in Taiwan, multi-ethnic and multi-racial nation that it is, there are several languages on the table at any one time: the national, government-authorized language of Mandarin Chinese, the local dialect of Hoklo Taiwanese (spoken on a daily basis a bit in the way that Yiddish was used long ago in pre-war Germany) and several other "mother tongues" used by various ethnic groups.  

And in the Taiwanese dialect, "Heilanjaio" sounds very close to the Hoklo word for dick.

Enter the public morals minders. The government, good people all, said the new title was, and I quote in translation:  "a violation of public morals". The new title was deemed "inappropriate."

But in its defense, the distributor told reporters in Taipei that they didn't do it on purpose or to cause a public uproar, noting: "Our translation came from the movie's story itself, in which the killer draws a picture of a ''black orchid'' on her victims each time she takes revenge."

But since Taiwan's popular TV shows are notorious for puns and word games that mingle the various spoken languages used here, often crossing boundaries and running afoul of the morals police, one must be careful at all times when translating movie titles lest the little ones — under 18, that is — and the conservative older crowd don't like the sound of certain things.

So, Taiwan being a free and democratic nation, a decision was made the retitle the movie as ''Hei-lan-sha'' (黑蘭煞),  which means ''black beauty evil" and does not pun on penis.

The government's public morals committee of the Department of Motion Pictures urged translators of movie titles to be more careful in the future, noting: "While film promotion and marketing needs to be creative and eye-catching, one must also consider public perceptions, and in this recent case, the title went too far."

The final decision about the title brouhaha was made by a five-member panel that included local academics and several women’s rights groups. 

The Luc Besson-Olivier Megaton film opens nationwide in Taiwan next month, according to industry sources.


Aaron Barlow writes about film, new media (especially blogging) and whatever else happens to pique his interest. Past owner/operator of a cafe, a store, and a gallery (among other activities), he began teaching at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) four years ago. His newest book is “Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes.” Visit him online at www.aaronbarlow.com.