Mistranslating Permaculture, or Bill Mollison and the Dangers of Ambiguity

Recently, while searching the web for Spanish versions of Permaculture film titles, I came across a curiously tone-deaf translation of one of the genre’s most well-known titles: “In Grave Danger of Falling Food”, a 53-minute made-for-TV documentary film directed by Tony Gailey in 1989.


The title of the film is taken from a humorous anecdote which Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison provides in one scene: He visits the garden of a permaculturalist where there is such an abundance of food that visitors must wear helmets to protect themselves against the possibility of fruit falling off trees. At the entrance to the garden there hung an ironic warning: “In Grave Danger of Falling Food”.

The ambiguity of this title – speficially the phrase “falling food” – works in English to color the film’s gloomy depiction of the world’s ever worsening social and environmental problems, and simultaneously, the massive promise of Permaculture design to provide solutions. At first glance, the cynical side of this double entendre is clearly felt with the phrase “falling food”; the downward trend of a line graph which indicates an apocalyptically declining food supply. However, Mr. Mollison’s use of the anecdote, and in fact his entire career as a pioneer of Permaculture is based on positivity. What was also meant by the phrase “In Grave Danger of Falling Food” was that permaculture can create an absolute abundance of food.

I think it’s a good title in English, but because of the ambiguity it apparently forces translators to choose either one (positive) or the other (negative) connotations in the case that an equally ambiguous equivalent is not available. In the Spanish dubbed version, the translators have clearly opted for the negative implication in their version of the title:

“Peligro de Escasez de Comida”

which translates back to English as, “In Danger of Food Shortages”. Such a title would clearly be more at place in a Monsanto scare-tactic piece calling for bigger badder GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), not a Permaculture film about positive solutions.



If they had wanted to emphasize Bill’s positive inflection on term “falling food” it may have have been better to translate the film’s title as “Peligro de Derrame de Comida”, which translates back to English as roughly, “Beware of the Overspilling of Foods”, or, “Beware of the Overflow of Foods.”

Anyway, I appreciate the efforts of overdubbing the film into another language and my point is not to beat up on any friends of Permaculture. It takes a LOT of effort to do it, and there is no money directly involved. In most cases, these kind of dubbed version are all made “de onda” as Argentines would say, or, “out of the goodness of one’s heart.” For all of us involved in translating Permacultural texts, it’s worth the extra effort to make sure the spirit of the movement does not get lost in mix.

Un pensamiento en “Mistranslating Permaculture, or Bill Mollison and the Dangers of Ambiguity”

  1. Creo que “las buenas intensiones” a la hora de traducir “de onda” un documental sobre Permacultura, no alcanzan; porque si sabemos de qué se trata jamás usaríamos términos negativos a manera de “sentencias” en el título, porque la Permacultura es en sí una forma de vivir/hacer Positiva y por lo tanto optimísta.
    El título más fiel al original sería “CUIDADO, COMIDA DESBORDANDO”
    Gracias por las observaciones y reflexiones de este post, porque es inspirador para traducir “de corazón” otros ducumentales 🙂

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