My longtime friend Brian has a friend in China who’s started working as a translator for the Beijing edition of a major newspaper. He and Brian talked recently, and he bemoaned his biggest problem: translating movie references, mostly because he’s rarely seen many English-speaking movies.
Ever since the web gave journalists a global audience, the practice of using idioms has been beaten out of us. They’re not easily translated, and even native speakers of English – having grown up in Australia or India or England – would be confused by phrases such as “ballpark estimate” and “reading between the lines.”
But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped using cultural catchphrases. Hence the translator’s conundrum running into sentences relating to making my day, bigger boats, yippee ki-yay, and punks feeling lucky. Translating such catchphrase into Chinese invariably required some sort of context. He asked Brian what he should do, and Brian suggested watching more American movies. To which he naturally asked, “Which ones?”
And with that question, he managed to pass the conundrum onto Brian: if you were going to recommend five movies to watch in order to understand common catchphrases, which five movies would you choose?
Some are fairly easy. Casablanca is the wonderful source of everything from “I’m shocked, shocked to gambling going on here” and “Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.” (My personal favorite is still, “There are certain parts of New York I’d advise you not to invade,” but the opportunity for that one doesn’t come up too often.)
Ditto The Godfather, because – especially in business – the topic of making an offer one can’t refuse comes frequently, as does advice like the title of this post, and the chilling disclosure that Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.
But after that, it gets kind of hard, if only because you want to compile a short list and suggest movies that have the biggest bang for the buck. When I posed this question to friends, they frequently came up with movies that were both famous and financially remunerative but without as many catchphrases as you might think.
For instance, Star Wars has “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” and “May the force be with you” and … yes? What else?
The Graduate has “I have one word for you – plastics!” and “You’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you, Mrs. Robinson?” and …
And after “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” I couldn’t come up with anything substantive from Jaws.
Another journalist who specializes in writing about Hollywood had two great suggestions – checking the top 100 quotes list as compiled by the American Film Institute. She also suggested The Wizard of Oz, from which we get such favorites as “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too” and “my, people come and go so quickly here” and “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” (Hands down, the best use of the latter was a Detroit Free Press headline in October 2011 when the Tigers were in the playoffs and the undefeated Lions were playing their division rival Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. I’m frankly not sure how that would have translated in Chinese, which only substantiates his frustration.)
A friend who clearly has a predilection for Saturday Night Live suggested Caddyshack, Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes. I hesitated to pass those on though, simply because I couldn’t think of a situation where a writer for his paper would refer to togas, gophers, or even admit that it just doesn’t matter.
Similarly, The Princess Bride came up a lot in discussions, but I’m having trouble envisioning someone in his paper writing, “Have fun storming the castle!” or “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Strangely enough, what did seem like a logical addition to the list was not an American movie at all, but a British one: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I actually ran an article years ago about the supposed death of mainframes with the headline “I’m Not Dead Yet” (the author’s idea, but it was too perfect to change). There’s also “blue – no, red!” and “It’s only a flesh wound,” not to mention discussions of African versus European swallows. These are topics that flow more naturally within the pages of a major newspaper.
Ultimately, I found impossible to come up with a really good list. I had to admit that what we had here was a failure to communicate.