I'm currently waiting for a friend's husband to arrive from Brazil with a copy of Euclides da Cunha's Os Sert?es. Now in English this book is known as Rebellion in the backlands. Sert?o means Brazil's isolated wilderness. But it got me thinking why someone introduced the word 'rebellion'; this immediately gives way the story of the book, which is a first-hand account of the Canudos War (look it up, it's fascinating; and for the Vargas Llosa fans, this book was the inspiration for The War at the End of the World). Now this is one of Brazil's great literary masterpieces, widey read there. But for a foreign market the translators had to make the title more interesting.
This got me thinking about other books that have received new titles for marketing reasons, sometimes becoming deceiving. The first book that ever made think about this was Jos? Saramago's O Memorial do Convento, which the British cleverly translated into Baltasar and Blimunda. Now the novel is all about the construction of the Convent of Mafra, with a secondary (and I'd say banal) love story. But the British title makes it look like it's all about the lovers. I wonder how people react expecting a love story and find dozens and dozens of pages about the minute details of building a convent in 18th century Portugal
Primo Levi's Se questo ? un uomo is known in the USA as Survival in Auschwitz, which is rather redundant. Of course he survived; otherwise there wouldn't be a book.
Now the British left the original title If This Is a Man. This title is a better description of what the book is about, which is a study of how low people will go to survive, making the reader question his definition of man. It's basically an anthropological, sociological study. With the USA sensationalist title (can't you just imagine an exclamation point at the end for emphasis?), it sounds indistinguishable from other holocaust memoirs.
My last example is Pablo Neruda's memoirs, which was imaginatively translated as Memoirs. I presume this is to cash in on the growing market for (auto)biographies. But lacks the beauty and audacity of the original title, I Confess I?ve Lived. For a man who fought fascism all his life, who was hated by many right-wing politicians in his own country, who suffered exile, who escaped prison, this is a bold statement. It?s completely lost on the American translation.
Titles sometimes have interesting lives.