Faire les quatre cents coups

I was reading about the French film festival in Brighton when I saw that they were showing The 400 Blows, by François Truffaut. Tut, tut, I said to myself. This is a literal translation of the original title "Les 400 coups", and like many literal translations, it is wholly inappropriate. A coup can indeed be translated as blow, but it can also mean stunt or trick, and it is the case here: the title "Les 400 coups" is taken from the expression Faire les 400 coups, which means to lead a very wild, undisciplined life, like Antoine Doinel, the main hero of the film, does.
As this expression doesn’t exist in English, they had an opportunity to be completely creative and come up with a new title for the English audience. Anything would have been better than a literal translation of part of an expression that has no direct equivalent in English.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:21+00:00 March 7th, 2005|Idioms|16 Comments

About the Author:

Celine
I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

16 Comments

  1. Jemima March 7, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    I watched “Merci pour le chocolat” recently, which has the English title of “Nightcap”. I thought it was a shame to translate the title like that because the original seemed to work in French and English. When watching the film, I was startled by the use of Nightcap and it combined with my knowledge of the French title to place too much emphasis and anticipation on one part of the film.

  2. Becca March 7, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    I think that’s the generally accepted English-language title for the film. Probably assigned when it was first subtitled and released for an anglophone audience–and I’ve never understood why it had that title until your explanation.

  3. ViVi March 7, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    I’m interested to know what you what have translated it to. 🙂

  4. céline March 7, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    That’s the beauty of it ViVi! Once you’re that free from the source text, you can pick anything you like (as long as it relates to the film, of course). I didn’t offer a translation for a very simple reason: I haven’t seen the film, so I wouldn’t know what title would be appropriate! 🙂
    Any ideas anyone?

  5. language hat March 7, 2005 at 10:34 pm

    Actually, I think The 400 Blows is a fine title in that it’s memorable and indelibly associated with the film. If they had called it, say, The Wild Life, I don’t think it would have had the success it did. Comprehensibility isn’t everything!
    Hmm… doing a little checking, I see that it’s I quattrocento colpi in Italian, Los cuatrocientos golpes in Spanish, and Chetyresta udarov in Russian — in other words, they made the same lazy/clever decision as the English translator (distributor?). The Germans, on the other hand, call it Sie küssten und sie schlugen ihn [‘they kissed and they beat him’]. I rest my case.

  6. Andreas March 7, 2005 at 10:52 pm

    at first glance, it seems that the copywriter had a day off when the decision was made. or maybe no one could agree so they went with a bland yet enigmatic literal translation that no-one had actually thought of.
    i havent seen the film but perhaps a title like ‘The tearaway’ might be suitable.

  7. Andreas March 7, 2005 at 10:52 pm

    at first glance, it seems that the copywriter had a day off when the decision was made. or maybe no one could agree so they went with a bland yet enigmatic literal translation that no-one had actually thought of.
    i haven’t seen the film but perhaps a title like ‘The tearaway’ might have been suitable.

  8. Andreas March 7, 2005 at 10:55 pm

    Apologies for reposting. I have a proof-reading obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  9. Iain March 8, 2005 at 9:26 am

    I hate to get all anal-retentive, but shouldn’t it be “Faire les quatre centS coups”? 😉

  10. céline March 8, 2005 at 9:35 am

    Well, if I can’t trust my instincts any more… you’re right Iain, “cent” is invariable, apart from when it is multiplied by a number before it and not followed by another number, which is the case here. So why does it look so wrong?

  11. Jim March 11, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    I can’t for the life of me say why – I’ll ask my sisters – but at home the Truffaut film was always called in English “paint the town red” – I mean it was called that as though that were its English name. It’s only marginally better than 400 blows on my view because it really means to live the high life, not necessarily the wild life, no?

  12. céline March 11, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    Yes, “paint the town red” has a “party” connotation that “faire les 400 coups” hasn’t, I’d say. About your comment on “Jolie poupée”, what’s funny about what I wrote?!

  13. jim March 14, 2005 at 4:10 pm

    Ben…I didn’t say a word about Jolie poupée! Honest guv!

  14. jim March 14, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    Ben…I didn’t say a word about Jolie poupée! Honest guv!

  15. Jim March 14, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Apologies – I did. I’ve responded in the original thread.

  16. Chris March 21, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    I always thought that perhaps I had got it wrong, but what you’re saying here confirms that I was partly right. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the phrase ‘faire les quatre cent(s) coups’ meant going on a spree or, in the case of the film, playing truant and basically going round and doing what you want in an anarchic sort of way. In English? Perhaps ‘a walk on the wild side’?

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