With the boom of on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, people all around the world have millions of titles at their hands. Translators and subtitlers have the important responsibility of rendering TV-shows and movies in their mother tongue – which doesn’t only imply a mere translation of the content; it also calls for a careful analysis of the target culture AND the historical context during which it will be shown, among others.
To those who know me well, it comes as no surprise that I prefer to watch TV-series and movies in original language. I think Italian translators – especially in the past – tended to over-translate or over-change dialogues or situations, ultimately contributing to make the Italian version at least odd, if not cringe at all. (Let’s be honest, laugh tracks do not help in this sense).
Today I want to examine some cases in which the choices made by Italian translators were not exactly appropriate. Here’s a list of Italian renderings of some of my favorite English TV-shows and movies which completely altered the original meaning!
1. The Nanny
I could not start this list without mentioning The Nanny. In the original show, Fran Fine is a girl from Flushing, Queens who was born into a Jewish family. Her mother Sylvia and her grandma Yetta revolve around her adventures at the Sheffields’.
Well, the Italian version could not be more different than the original! Due to the Jewish culture which the Italian audience was still not really acquainted with at the time, Fran Fine becomes Francesca Cacace, a girl from the region of Ciociaria south of Rome. Her mother Sylvia becomes aunt Assunta, with Yetta being her sister-in-law with Polish origins!
Even though it has defined the success of The Nanny with the Italian audience, this massive alteration of the original plot has often lead to inconsistency problems within the show. One needs only to think of the episode in which Francesca goes to the kibbutz with Maggie. Or when Sylvia/Assunta and Fran go to the Jewish temple. Or even the Hanukah/Bar Mitzvah episodes… examples are endless. In those cases, all the Jewish references were replaced with South-Italian traditions, and the final result is pretty funny even if occasionally odd.
The Nanny is famous also for its countless references to the American pop culture. Italian translators here did a pretty impressive job: all of them were actually replaced with references to the Italian culture – Rai, Caterina Caselli, Teatro alla Scala to name a few. Pretty smart, isn’t it?
In the end, the Italian version of the Nanny looks like a completely new show comparing to the original!
2. Modern Family
Modern Family is a witty TV-show full of references to big important movies. Unfortunately, the Italian audience loses a good part of these references due the choice of translating movie titles literally.
One example? In one episode, Mitchell calls a very smart man “Rain Man”. Here the quote is obvious – the famous colossal with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. (The movie in Italy is widely known with its original name.) However, translators rendered Mitchell’s line with “mago della pioggia”, i.e. “Rain Wizard”. Not only does the audience lose the original reference, but the resulting dialogue is also quite odd.
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Ok, this is not a TV-show, but I couldn’t help mentioning it in this list.
One of the deepest movies of the early ’00s. A surreal journey in which Charlie Kaufman (Jim Carrey) navigates his mind and dreamlike memories in an attempt to physically erase his last love story – but ultimately learns what love is. In this context, the beautiful verse of Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!” finds its perfect use.
A literal Italian translation or the use of the English title, though, would have been too little incisive for the Italian audience. Yet, the choice of Se mi lasci ti cancello (literally “If you leave me, I’ll erase you”) definitely weakens the deep and poetic meaning of this beautiful movie, making it look almost like a rom-com. Too bad!
Futurama Italian dialogues are well translated. The humorous and irreverent component of the original version is maintained and a bilingual audience would probably not miss the original version. However, we find a pretty approximate mistake! The word in question is “WereCar”, which is an obvious wordplay with “WereWolves”. The car passes its curse to other cars it hits – therefore, its behavior is traditional of a WereWolf.
Yet, Italian translators mistook the word “Were” with the past simple of the verb to be, rendering it like “Car that was” (“Auto che era”). Since we have an expression for WereWolves (“lupi mannari”, which could have become “auto mannara”), the error here is pretty strange and completely avoidable.
Let’s finish with my favorite show of all time – and that of a lot of you, I bet! Friends is, like, THE show. The original version is simply unbeatable. Witty dialogues, nearly surreal situations, funny references, outstanding cast… well I can go on forever. To the same extent, I have to say that the Italian rendering did not make justice at all to this masterpiece of comedy. Dialogues were completely changed to alter their original meanings, references were removed, and in general the translation sounds pretty unnatural. Examples are countless, but I want to focus on “The One After the Superbowl (Part II)” ep. 13×02 which presents us with two odd renderings.
The first one: Monica gets to date Jean-Claude van Damme, who doesn’t usually date fans. In the original version, Jean-Claude reveals he has accepted because Rachel assured him Monica wanted to have a threesome with him and Drew Barrymore (😂). Why in the world would the Italian version replace “threesome” with “golf match”??? I would say it was still not advisable to hint at sexual situations – also given that the show aired in the afternoon, when most kids had just come back from school – but still, translators could have come up with a better solution. The whole scene feels odd and doesn’t make anyone laugh. C’mon!
Second error, same episode: when Chandler remains naked thanks to (or because of!) Julia Robert’s revenge! Learnt of the funny story, all of his friends make fun of the poor guy. When Chandler asks Phoebe to pass him the milk, she answers “I’m almost done with it, keep your panties on!” – which is both a wordplay on the English expression “to relax” and a hint to the guy being naked. Here the translation is cringe – and it sounds like “to each his own panties”.
Like, seriously? Does it even make sense at all in the context?
Mind you, translation is no simple job. But there are some cases in which they could have opted for a better solution – and probably a more familiar one. Have you noticed how translators cannot switch off their brain even when they are watching a movie or a show? That’s our sad destiny 😂