FILM / The last detail

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The Independent Culture
C'EST arrive pres de chez vous, a Belgian mock-documentary about an exceptionally vicious and versatile serial killer, was first screened at last year's Cannes Festival and has just opened in London. If you've never heard of it, that's probably because, for its British release, it was decided to retitle it Man Bites Dog. And if that phrase seems to bear scant relation to the original (whose literal translation would be something like 'It Happened Near You'), it does in fact accurately communicate the spirit of the Belgian title, which refers to the sort of newspaper column that specialises in the quirky or the sensationalist.

It's rather unusual for such a cross-language retitling to contrive, as here, to be both faithful and ingenious. Between English and French, for example, I can think only of the transposition of Claude Chabrol's thriller Poulet au vinaigre into Cop au Vin and, in the reverse direction, of Sidney Lumet's hi-tech heist movie The Anderson Tapes into La Bande Anderson (where 'bande' can be understood as both 'tape' and 'gang').

Otherwise, approximations, if on occasion charming approximations, tend to be the order of the day: such as the choice of French title for Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, Compte sur moi, which means precisely the opposite (ie 'I'll Stand By You'); or, in a different register, the misreading of the title of John Ford's Western Two Rode Together, which appeared in its subtitled version as Two Rode to Get Her (a fair description, as it happens, of the movie's plot).

The French often succeed in getting themselves in a fix over English idioms. Thus the Disney actor Fess Parker had to be renamed Fred Parker because of the phonetic echo of the word 'fesse' (meaning 'buttock'). The Marx Brothers were variously referred to as 'Les Marx Brothers', 'Les Brothers Marx', 'Les Freres Marx' and even, I recall, on a poster for Duck Soup, 'Les Freres Brothers'] But perhaps the most memorable case of a subtitling gaffe occurred in the scene from Sam Peckinpah's war movie Cross of Iron in which some German infantrymen are hunkered down in a trench awaiting the imminent Allied advance. One of them finally ventures over the top, sees a line of armoured vehicles moving inexorably towards them and shouts, 'Tanks]'. This was translated, forgivably, as 'Merci]'.

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