Lost in [PT] Translation (#1): Star Wars: The Plurals Strike Back

Today I’m inaugurating a new blog section, delving in matters of translation into and/or from Portuguese. It will serve as an opportunity to discuss matters of translation and comparative translation, especially in the realms of media and culture (get ready for a lot of geeky posts about my favourite TV shows/films)!

For today’s installment, I couldn’t think of a better topic than the hype surrounding the new Star Wars film, The Last JediWhen the film’s title was first announced, on January 23rd last [1], I immediately assumed that it referred to a singular Jedi, namely Luke Skywalker, but more shrewd observers wondered whether the Jedi in the title was singular or plural (since Jedi can be both singular and plural) [2].

Given the secrecy surrounding the film, how could a translator working on this title know how to translate it into an inflected language where the rest of the sentence fragment – the definite article The and the adjective Last – could potentially give away these plot points?

©StarWars.com / Disney / LucasFilm
The Last Jedi title card, courtesy of StarWars.com

The other two titles of the Star Wars (Guerra das Estrelas¹ in Portugal, Guerra nas Estrelas in Brazil) franchise that suffer from the same number confusion, Return of the Jedi (1983) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), don’t offer much help, since they were treated differently for the purposes of translation – the first as a singular (O Regresso de Jedi²) and the second as a plural (A Vingança dos Sith). But at least the pattern was consistent throughout different languages, especially other Romance languages, as you can see on the table below:

Return of the Jedi Revenge of the Sith
European Portuguese O Regresso de Jedi A Vingança dos Sith
Brazilian Portuguese O Retorno de Jedi
French Le Retour du Jedi [3] La Revanche des Sith [4]
Spanish (Castilian) El regreso del Jedi [5]

El retorno del Jedi [6]

La venganza de los Sith [7]
Catalan El retorn del Jedi [7]

La venjança dels Sith [8]

Italian Il ritorno dello Jedi [9] La vendetta dei Sith [10]

This shows how different translations can corroborate a certain idea (and even mutually influence each other, when there aren’t many details you can work on or a tight information policy on the side of the film’s producers), especially in languages of the same family, with which most translators are familiar with or at least can grasp a basic amount of its grammar.

Just to give dissonant examples from other European non-Romance languages, the title for Episode VI in German and Bulgarian marks Jedi as clearly plural, respectively Die Rückkehr der Jedi-Ritter [11] (lit. “The Return of the Jedi Knights”, der being a genitive plural article, and Ritter the genitive plural of Ritter, “knight”; the singular would be …des Jedi-Ritters) and „Завръщането на джедаите[12] (-(и)те being a plural definite article marker; the definite singular here would have been джедая ³).

I’m sure this process of mutual back-and-forth being languages also influenced the translation of the new film’s title, since in mid-February most languages chose a plural marker for the official title of The Last Jedi [13], including French (Les Derniers Jedi), Spanish (Los Últimos Jedi) and German (Die letzten Jedi). In Portuguese, the plural Os Últimos Jedi has also become the norm, used in both Portuguese [14] and Brazilian [15] media, including official accounts (check Star Wars Brazil’s twitter account, @starwarsBR). It’s safe to say that this choice was at least somewhat influenced by the French and Spanish example – when context clues are scarce, it helps a translator having many language versions from which to choose the best option – in the case of a popular franchise in a globalized world, even more so.

But ironically enough, and just when people thought the matter was settled once and for all, a few weeks ago someone actually asked this question directly to Rian Johnson, the film’s director, and well… his answer could not be more contradictory [16]:

“It’s so funny when people started asking that when the title was announced, because I had never even pondered that question,” Star Wars director Johnson said in an interview with Good Morning Britain. “That seems like, to me, the most uninteresting (question).

However, he does have what is as close to definitive an answer as we’re going to get.

Look, in my mind, it’s singular. In my mind, it is. Absolutely, yeah,” he said.

So, what gives? We can’t really say why international translators decided to make Jedi plural, but Johnson’s answer is quite telling: while for him the question seems uninteresting  and he hadn’t even pondered it properly (probably on a plot level), other languages can’t afford that: for languages even with the mildest inflection (here, purely on a singular-plural basis), translating in a contextless vacuum always implies an element of choice between competing (and equally valid, or at least grammatically sound) choices. One isn’t necessarily better than the other (unless someone with knowledge had stated it beforehand), but a choice must be made nonetheless – while many English speakers noted the confusion, the fact that some (very important people) didn’t ultimately reveals how much of your language can influence your thinking (a mild thesis statement of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).

What are your thoughts on this issue? Does your language exhibit similar processes, and if so would you believe that a title can have an impact on your overall enjoyment of a movie? If you’re an English native speaker, how to feel about its sometimes unintentional vagueness? Let’s discuss all of this in the comments!


¹ The Portuguese title of the franchise is in itself an interesting choice; it literally means The War of the Stars; it’s similar to the French translation, La Guerre des étoiles, which was probably its main inspiration.

² Using de here is also an interesting choice, insofar as it is just as confusing as the original; the lack of an article in this way is not very common, being used mainly on partitives and with personal names in a formal way (for example, O Regresso de Luke Skywalker would be a perfect title, even more so than …do…, which is overtly familiar and therefore frowned upon in this register). It’s hard to know why they made this decision, but certainly the lack of clarity of the English title can be somewhat to blame for this.

³ The uninflected (indefinite forms) are джедай (singular) and джедаи (plural).

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