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I forgot it at home

May 7, 2019

Yesterday I went to see a film, Woman at War, by the Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson. It’s a very good film and I recommend that you go and see it. But that’s enough film-reviewing. The point is that at one moment during the movie someone asks the main character, Halla, if she has her mobile phone and she makes a reply (in Icelandic, obviously) that is subtitled as: “I forgot it at home.”

I forgot it at home. No doubt that is a literal translation of what she said, but in English it sounds wrong. If I forgot something, well, I forgot it. We can’t comfortably add an adverb of place. In English we would say I left it at home. But note that this has an ambiguity that the Icelandic original, and the clunky subtitle, do not have. Because if I leave something at home I might have done so either on purpose or by accident, whereas if I have forgotten it then it must be by accident. I don’t know whether the writer of that sub-title just translated literally or deliberately decided to go with the unambiguous version knowing that it was not idiomatic. Either way I think they made the right call.

Other European languages have this construction: in French you can say Je l’ai oublié chez moi. I think in the long-term it might become a normal feature of English, especially with the still-growing number of people who speak English as a second language. We’ll adopt it for our own, and it won’t sound odd any more.

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  1. simon Carter permalink

    In London you’d say “I left it in indoors” which isn’t as common in other parts of the country.

    • Ah, good one. Still, “I left it indoors”is ambiguous – that could be either intentional or unintentional (in speech I suppose the tone of voice would usually make that clear, though).

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    A psychological gloss (if this helps). At the moment I am helping my son revise for his A Level Psychology. One of the modules relates to how memory works, and a famous experiment got deep – sea divers to recall information either under the sea, or on dry land. A clear correlation showed that if they learned information under the sea, then they were more likely to recall it under the sea, and vice versa, so the context helps. To this extent, I suppose, it might be possible to forget your ‘phone at home, but remember it, for example, in the office (if that is where you usually use it).

    Straying off-topic a bit, to the subject of clunky subtitles, the otherwise wonderful Joseph Losey film of Don Giovanni has a number of classics. At the end, when Don Giovanni is about to be dragged down to hell by the Commendatore (who he murdered) with associated devils, whilst the singer on the screen is belting out some of the most sublime music ever written, the subtitle says ‘Oh, this could agitate my viscera’.

    And another favourite film of mine, ‘Three Colours Blue’ starring the ever-luminous Juliette Binoche, as a young widow she is rather non-plussed by the over-eager attentions of a young man who is trying to get her into bed. Bored, she says that she is just another woman like any other. According to the subtitles she says ‘I am another woman with cavities’. I think she means that she is like any other woman with the usual (sexual) openings, but I still keep wondering whether she meant that she had to go to the dentist.

  3. These are brilliant examples of terrible sub-titles!

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    In the early 80s I spent some time in Pakistan, the locals were incredibly friendly and it was common in those pre camera phone days to asked for “a rememory picture” of yourself so the person you were speaking to could show their friends and family.

  5. John Dunn permalink

    I suppose one way of avoiding the ambiguity of ‘left’ would be to say ‘I forgot to bring it with me’.

  6. Yes, you could do that – but it doesn’t make clear where the forgotten item is.

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