View Full Version : Translating book titles
We've tackled the subject of translating book titles here and there on the WLF, but I couldn't find a thread.
To sum up the general questions:
1) Are most book titles accurately or satisfactorily translated?
2) When the publisher or translator does change the title, when is it justified, when not?
3) Have you ever been attracted to, or put off, a book by the title when browsing in the bookshop?
For me, it seems like the big changes tend to take place between less closely related languages. I'm thinking about Chinese novels into English, mainly (for Spanish lit, my other main area of interest at the moment, the translations generally seem pretty faithful and effective, although I'm sure some other posters will be able to think of some counter-examples)
It's very tough in some situations, for instance (all from books of read recently):
Ma Jian - Red Dust. The original is 红尘, which means red dust as well, but to the best of my knowledge also has a meaning along the lines of 'the transitory world of appearances', 'the Earth as it is seen rather than as it is', and comes from Dream of the Red Chamber. Obviously this is all lost to the non-Chinese speaker (but then, as I have, you can read about it and learn! which is nice)
Mo Yan - Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌) - literally something like 'song(s) of garlic paradise'. Changed to sound better, I assume, but it misses out the sarcasm of 'garlic paradise': the book is set in a rural community that has been instructed to grow only garlic, which it is then unable to sell, and the whole book is overflowing with the stench of garlic in every corner and every bodily fluid...
Chan Koonchung - The Fat Years (盛世: 中国2013). This was known on the internet as 'China 2013: The Prosperous Time' before it was published this year. A literal translation is 'Prosperous World: China 2013'. In Spanish it's been called 'Años de Prosperidad'. The 'usual' literary translation of 盛世 is 'Golden Age' (the book is set in a future where China rules the world, and it's citizens are blissfully happy, although they all have a month missing from their memories). But the title of 'The Fat Years', chosen by the author, works very well because (like the Chinese original, afaik) it suggests that they are not temporary, but in a cycle of lean and fat.
Hu Fayun - Such is this World@sars.come (如焉@sars.come). This one is a nightmare to translate! The original title is an e-mail address, sort of, and the two characters mean 'Such is this World' (or 'that's the way things are' etc), but they are also a substitution for the name of the main character (whose name is said the same, 'Ru Yan', but written with different characters), as this is the alias she uses online (the book is about a widow discovering the internet and stumbling across forbidden material, as well as using it to criticise the government's response to the SARS outbreak). And the extra 'e' on the end of '.com' wasn't a typo, but rather a play on words in the vein of 'here comes SARS'. So no translation is going to match that.
To some extent I think this particular translation is the worst - it just doesn't sound very good in English. This is the overriding priority, I think, probably more so than loyalty to all the original connotations (which can be discovered by interested readers, as I said above)
Especially the complexity of the last, Sars, title is interesting. I do have some sympathy with publishers who feel that the title of a book lying on a display table in a bookshop must, along with the cover design, actually get a few customers to at least flick through the book, if not actually buy it.
So if the title is a pun, has involved grammar, etc., the publisher or editor may plump for something simpler. But when the title is about men who don't like women, I see no reason to write about a woman with a dragon tattoo.
My rule of thumb would be: leave straightforward titles alone, if at all possible. Just translate them, and don't be a clever dick. But another reason for changing the title would be if the direct translation would be something unintentionally risible in the target language. Can't think of many examples just now, but it's of the order of when Dutch importers changed the name of the lavatory cleaner fluid from "Harpic" to "Harpol", as "pik" is the Dutch for "prick" (in the same way as "kut" is the Dutch for "cunt"). So any names in the title must not jar or cause sniggers. When a book of Lithuanian poetry, involving the recurrent character "Kukulis" was translated into Swedish, once again pricks got in the way ("kuk" = "prick" in Swedish"). So he became "Koukoulis".
I just thought of a Spanish-to-English example that kind of speaks to the point you made in that last post - Fiesta en la madriguera by Juan Pablo Villalobos became 'Down the Rabbit Hole' in English, losing both the idea of a party and the sense of some dangerous beast ('madriguera' is more like 'den' or 'lair', or 'burrow' I suppose) and gaining and unwarranted reference to Alice in Wonderland that the author hadn't put in, but with which he was happy when the translator suggested it to him - I wonder if that makes a difference to considering how appropriate the title translation is?
Snippet of an interview:
The Literateur: Let’s start with the title: it’s an evocative one for Anglophone readers, and I’d like to unpack the resonances a little. ‘Tochtli’ [the book’s young narrator] means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl [Aztec language], neatly making the connection with Alice in Wonderland, also concerned with a parallel world and childhood perception. How do you see, then, the relationship between the rabbit hole and Mexico? Is it an alternative mirror image, in the way of Through the Looking Glass?
Juan Pablo Villalobos: In Spanish the title is ‘Party in the Lair’ (Fiesta en La Madriguera), something like that, literally. So when Rosalind the translator and the guys at And Other Stories suggested the title Down the Rabbit Hole, my first reaction was, why? Where’s the party? They explained to me that there was this parallelism with Alice in Wonderland, and Tochtli’s a rabbit, and then I started to think… I don’t know if there’s an influence of that book (Alice) on my novel, but I love the book. I started to think that it’s a good idea, because maybe British readers have this connection, and it must be attractive to them.
And yeah, it’s a claustrophobic world, and a trapped world, that in some ways has some relations with Alice in Wonderland, I think. And this style of narrating with some absurd connections between things that seem like they are so far away, but you can connect them, like the French with the Samurais with Mexico with the Liberian Pygmy Hippos – all this stuff together, it’s something like surreal.
And Other Stories is a very new publishing venture, so maybe they will develop checks and balances along the line. I note that the translator, Rosalind Harvey, is more familiar with Peru than with Mexican usage, which I believe to be tricky. But the title is clearly too Alice in Wonderland, as you suggest. I'm not really convinced by the translator's reasoning, whatever Tochtli means in the Nahuatl. As MichaelS suggests, a rabbit hole is hardly scary, whilst a lair could be if you encounter a raging beast. If the protagonist is rabbit-like, he is surely a poor little creature in a dangerous lair, while the beasts are all running around having a whale of a time. But you don't get that association with "Down the Rabbit Hole" which accentuates the usual cuteness of rabbits as pets.
Another book title where I think the translator or publishers overdid it is the title of the Simon Vestdijk novel "De koperen tuin" (1950), whose translation from Dutch into English by Alex Brotherton was originally published in 1965 as "The Garden Where the Brass Band Played". The English title is true to the story, and yet "The Copper Garden" would, as in the Dutch, have had a wider spectrum of associations. Mentioning the garden is somewhat nannying. But they kept the title when the English translation was reprinted about 15 years ago.
It's my understanding the Stieg Larsson's first novel, re-titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in English, was originally called Män som hatar kvinnor in Swedish (Men Who Hate Women). While the Swedish title is quite fitting, given the book's storyline, I can understand why a marketing department somewhere made the decision to go in a completely different direction. I would have felt misogynistic even putting a copy of Men Who Hate Women on the counter for the sales clerk to ring up.
Herta Müller's books underwent some bizarre title translations, both into Spanish and into English. E.g. Hertzier became La Bestia del Corazón and The Land of Green Plums, while her latest novel Atemschaukel has even been published in English under two different titles, Everything I Possess I Carry With Me and The Hunger Angel. Quite confusing!
I'm now reading a novel by Spanish author María Dueñas. The original title is El Tiempo entre Costuras (literally it would be The Time Between Seams, in Italian Il tempo tra le cuciture), but in Italian it has been translated as La notte ha cambiato rumore (literally The Night has Changed its Noise), but I'm not sure about its meaning! Yet, I'm still halfway through the novel, so maybe I'll get it later on. In English it has become The Time in Between, so more similar to the original.
But I'm intrigued by the way the Italian translator has changed the title. We'll see...
Didn't you know, Stiffelio, that in the German-speaking cities of Siebenbürgen, such as Hermannstadt, Klausenburg, Kronstadt, und so weiter, the people had no heart, merely green plums in their chests? What is the English for "Atemschaukel", if you translate it literally? Not "All My Angelic Baggage", surely.
It is often people at the publishing house that force the title onto the translator, who then gets the blame for trendy nonsense. These editors are young, with-it, and enthusiastic - and have no feel for the contents of the book, as they haven't read it. Another publishing slave or minion is assigned to actually go through the text, line by line with the translator, whom the publishing house thinks should be browbeaten into abject submission, as the publishing house knows best when it comes to sales figures.
Powered by vBulletin® Version 4.2.0 Copyright © 2013 vBulletin Solutions, Inc. All rights reserved.