Commerce, Craft, and Culture:
Book and Film Titles in Translation
by Vincent Kling
The gulf between theory and practice appears even wider in the world of translation than elsewhere. The humanities have long envied empirical science’s mechanisms for verifiability, but the humanities pursue a different mode of truth. David Bellos, himself an acclaimed translator, let that cat out of the bag when he asked in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything how one can “have theories and principles about a process that comes up with no determinate results.” It may be a defensive reaction, then, that the craft of translation is often disdained by an academy that could not exist without its work—no Bible, no Homer, no Dante, no Cervantes, no Pushkin, no Proust. Even the most eminent practitioners feel inferior; no less a figure than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet and acclaimed translator of Dante and others, wondered at times if translating wasn’t “an excuse for being lazy—like leaning on another man’s shoulder.” As a professor at Harvard, though, he probably saw his share of turned-up noses. Since his time, university translation programs have come into existence, and it is telling that they almost always require a translation as a thesis, not another treatise on theory.
Actual publication is the translator’s aim, after all, and that means entering the world of commerce, marketing, and sales. Acknowledging these practicalities is often equated with crass capitulation to Mammon or worship of the bitch goddess, but market forces often refine and enrich, necessitating cultural and contextual changes that have at times prompted more creative and imaginative practice than might have emerged otherwise. Since book titles are not covered by copyright (§ 202.1, US Copyright Law), the flexibility this exclusion allows makes a good starting point for understanding how authors, translators, publishers, and even readers can gain from enlisting commerce to advance culture.
Bellos’s point alerts us that we will not end up with tabulations or laws governing how titles are translated. Choices are always contingent and often based on intuition and instinct. If the driving force is the market, the measuring stick is usually based on the potential of a title to awaken interest. Readers who champion the primacy of art as an autonomous force independent of sales are likely at this point to believe the market will tend to resort to glitziness—anything to sell a book. But when the market considerations are deployed perceptively, as they usually are, a change of title may embody the essence of a book better than a more dutiful, literal lexical replication.
An example might help. André Gide was fascinated by cases in law, and some of his court reporting was collected in 1913 under the title Souvenirs de la Cour d’assises. A Gide completist might not think twice about snapping up a book titled “Memories of the Court of Assizes,” a literal translation of the French, but the chances of wider appeal were surely increased by the actual title in English, Judge Not (trans. Benjamin Ivry, 2003), which deftly captures Gide’s thesis in two words—and, as we will see, in language eminently faithful to Gide’s practice.
Changes are not made out of whimsy or caprice, then. No “law” says that drastic changes need to be made, and we can in fact learn a great deal about artistic principles in tandem with commercial forces by observing situations under which lexical changes do and do not occur. Some acclaimed twentieth-century novels illustrate the point by leaving well enough alone; what would have been the benefit of departing from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit (Night Flight, trans. Stuart Gilbert, 1932) or his Le petit prince (The Little Prince, trans. Richard Howard, 2000); Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver, 1983); or Thomas Mann’s Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers, trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter, 1948; John E. Woods, 2005)?
Some titles based on foreign words can be so apt, for that matter, as to rule out even any lexical transfer at all. What could better characterize Curzio Malaparte’s arresting account of the Second World War than Kaputt (trans. Cesare Foligno, 1946)? It is the absolute mot juste for his fascinated, horrified observation of the tortures and violence perpetrated by Germans who smashed whole countries in a spectacular Götterdämmerung. French, Dutch, and Serbo-Croatian translations, to cite just three, are accordingly all titled Kaputt as well. Like Malaparte, Laurent Binet drew on German, though he was writing in French, and used the abbreviation HHhH (“Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”—“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) as the title of his acclaimed first novel (trans. Sam Taylor, 2010). The calculatedly cryptic title prompts curiosity about a novel dealing with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, but also with the nature of memory, the role of history, and the writer’s ethical and artistic responsibility when basing fiction on fact. The need to decipher Binet’s title matches the need to negotiate the brilliantly interwoven strands of the narrative. Kudos to translator and publisher for being open to what turned out to be a justified risk from the sales perspective, for the mysterious title seems only to have increased curiosity and, as a result, sales.
But when choice is present, which factors warrant free decision and which put the translator under necessary constraint? Cultural mediation and adaptation form the impetus for change, but they cannot supersede fixed, immutable language. Terms of art, set expressions, tropes, or slogans are often embedded so firmly that a translator is granted no individual choice. Fairy tales begin with a standard phrase, Charles Perrault’s “Il était une fois” or the Brothers Grimms’ “Es war einmal” (universal, but here citing “Le petit chaperon rouge” and “Rotkäppchen” respectively) inflexibly rendered by “Once upon a time.” With a formula like this, to vary would be to distort.
A similar constraint governs Biblical expressions and phrases, requiring translators to cite renderings long established and recognized in their own language. Protestant-reared Gide frequently cited the Bible for his titles, and his translator Dorothy Bussy drew the right cultural parallel by calling on the King James version. (Translation ran in the family; Bussy’s brother James translated the standard edition of Freud.) Gide’s La porte étroite (Luke 7:14) accordingly becomes Strait is the Gate; Les nourritures terrestres (Mark 4:28; James 5:7) The Fruits of the Earth; and Si le grain ne meurt (John 12:24) If It Die. Though it does not observe the same lexical matching, Ivry’s title Judge Not (Matthew 7:1), cited earlier, skillfully echoes Gide’s practice. Biblical phrasing grants no leeway, usually not even to select a version less widely acknowledged than the King James, whose familiar cadences conjure a whole heritage.
Likewise, the Gospel figure called in French “l’enfant prodigue” and in German “der verlorene Sohn” is in English “the Prodigal Son,” the standard capital letters indicating his uniqueness, enough so that the epithet admits no alteration. Translators are called on to be alert to such innate predeterminations and to respect them as markers of coherence. Rainer Maria Rilke fittingly rendered André Gide’s Le retour de l’enfant prodigue as Die Rückkehr des verlorenen Sohnes (English The Return of the Prodigal Son), even though French “prodigue” carries the meaning of “lavish” or “extravagant” and does not mean “lost” (German “verloren”). Long usage from a definitive source fixes wording, so that even new versions of the Bible in modern colloquial English retain the now somewhat formal-sounding but standard “prodigal.”
The sensitive and talented translator who brought out in English the correspondence between Hermann Broch and his son missed a point by titling the book Lost Son, though the often tense relations between Broch, austere and forbidding, and his son Armand, more a playboy and a jetsetter, showed close similarity to the estrangement recorded in Luke 15:11-32. The parallel is not exact, but the title Lost Son sacrifices a significant allusion to the Biblical account, all the more since Broch and his son reconciled, as in the Gospel, one mark of which was Armand’s translating several works by his father (as well as others by Elias Canetti and Gregor von Rezzori). Disregarding that necessary allusion, which places one father-son conflict against an archetypal backdrop, narrowed the dimension of the estrangement and resolution between Broch and his son.
I found myself mandated by this Biblical imperative in translating Heimito von Doderer’s novella Divertimento No VII: Die Posaunen von Jericho. The accurate dictionary correspondence to “Posaune” in English is “trombone,” of course, but the reference is scriptural, leaving no choice but to translate “Posaune” as “trumpet,” because the King James Bible and later versions always have “trumpet” where the Luther Bible and later German versions have “Posaune.” A translator mediates between cultures and so must take account of the following passages: Exodus 20:18; Leviticus 25:9; Joshua 6:4-18 (the trumpets of Jericho); 1 Corinthians 14:8; 1 Corinthians 15:5; Revelation 8:1-13 (the trumpet of the Last Judgment), in all of which the English equivalent to German “Posaune” is “trumpet.” The source bars individual discretion, then, and any translator would distort the meaning outright by being lexically precise. Try convincing the “purists,” though. I cannot be the only translator who has been “corrected” at readings by audience members, with no amount of explanation ever seeming to make a dent. “But you must say ‘trombone.’ You may not say ‘trumpet.’ You are wrong.”
In a more contemporary instance, translator Geoffrey Howes reports confusion about culturally accurate but non-literal transfer. Matthias Karner, protagonist of Lilian Faschinger’s novel Stadt der Verlierer, is a fan of American rock music and especially enjoys listening to—and applying to his home city, Vienna—Bruce Springsteen’s song “Town Full of Losers.” Since Faschinger based her title and a good deal of Karner’s psychology on the song, it is a foregone conclusion that a translation can only be titled Town Full of Losers. This is a close echo of Faschinger’s German title, though the German (Town of Losers) has no lexical match for “full of.” Howes, who has translated passages for a book of essays about Faschinger and has given readings from them, reports that listeners, in good faith but unaware of the source, keep challenging his title. Like any conscientious translator aware of cultural complexities, Howes is exercising the only valid option here, but because so many cannot identify Faschinger’s allusion, he felt obligated to clarify the English title in a note.
Inventiveness is not primarily what translators need, then, when such equivalencies are present; they need more to be alert to what is already in place on both sides of the equation. The adage “Man proposes, but God disposes” is rather easily translated into German as “Der Mensch denkt, aber Gott lenkt,” for instance, because the adage already exists in a transferrable parallel, even though the corresponding German verbs are not Latinate, like the English ones. In these cases, translation works somewhat like a systems exchange, but the lack of any ready (if sometimes rough) parallel creates what I once wrote about as “the lure of systems failure,” the challenge a translator must face to create workable, responsible equivalents if there is no clear word-to-word transferal or if the “faithful” replication of a title would hamper understanding and impede acceptance.
To repeat, there would have been no reason to translate Mann’s Joseph und seine Brüder as anything other than Joseph and His Brothers, but sometimes a translator and/or a publisher has to depart significantly from the original or risk incurring obscurity if not outright confusion. Here is where the market comes into its creative own. Would the title Lotte in Weimar attract any English-language reader with no background in German literary history? From 1924 to 1960, H. T. Lowe-Porter made it possible for tens of thousands of readers to become acquainted with Mann’s work; she is rightly considered “in quantity as in quality, one of the great translators of our time.” Harried by the constant pressure of deadlines for the Book-of-the-Month Club, she not surprisingly made errors, documented with due accuracy but often with snide malice. As Gide protested, “I deplore that spitefulness that tries to discredit a translation (perhaps excellent in other regards) because here and there slight mistranslations have crept in.” Such negativity makes it easy to forget Lowe-Porter’s skill in devising an English title for Lotte in Weimar, The Beloved Returns (1940), redolent of romance and conducive to sales, that made an improbable semi-best-seller out of an episode from Goethe’s old age, a visit to Weimar from an old love named Charlotte (Lotte), told through daunting techniques of interior monologue and stream of consciousness. Who could argue that retaining Lotte in Weimar would have augmented the novel’s appeal? Similarly, any literal rendering of Mann’s title Der Erwählte (literally, “the chosen one”) would probably have sounded in English as if the story had to do with Jewish life à la Chaim Potok, whereas it is a late-style romp about the outlandish adventures of a picaresque hero who eventually becomes pope. How much better—thematic, piquant, even titillating—is The Holy Sinner (1951).
A more recent example strongly illustrates this power of inventiveness to acknowledge the bottom line by devising a systems transfer where a lexical match would dampen reader interest. Besides being a prolific novelist, Sam Taylor is a translator alert to bottom-line practicalities. He realizes that “most book titles that are changed in translation are changed for reasons of marketability, and consequently it’s often the marketing departments of the publishers who make the decision, although the author, the translator and the editor are generally consulted too.” I wrote him a fan email after reading his translations of Binet’s HHhH and of Michel Bussi’s best seller Un avion sans elle (After the Crash, 2015); in the first case he kept the title intact but in the second switched from an object and a person to the disaster from which the plot arises. I was curious about the thinking that led him, as I wrongly surmised, to translate Clémentine Beauvais’s title Songe à la douceur—a line from one of Baudelaire’s best-known poems—as In Paris with You (2018). He told me that the publisher decided on the change. It was clear, of course, that any literal rendering of the Baudelaire line (Dream of the Sweetness?!) would fall flat outside its French context. Paris is so irresistibly fascinating and romantic to outsiders, however, that when Beauvais “sold the US rights, she even had to agree that the cover would have the Eiffel Tower on it!” Beauvais gladly assented, aware that the publisher was grasping the full cultural impact. As she herself explains:
Translation choices are endlessly puzzling to writers, but I think it’s important to trust that the other country does in fact, most of the time, know best. I was a bit taken aback when it was suggested that my Songe à la douceur (an untranslatable par excellence, since it’s a line of poetry by Baudelaire) be translated into English as In Paris With You. To a French person, even one strongly Britannicised like me, there’s nothing particularly romantic about being ‘in Paris with you’; I’m often ‘in Paris with’ random people, and it generally doesn’t mean I spend my time eating croissants with them, gazing into their eyes and listening to an accordion piece while the Eiffel Tower sparkles in the background. But when I started hearing the enthusiastic reactions of my British acquaintances to this title, I understood that I had, in fact, clearly no legitimacy whatsoever to assess the power of that title.
In Paris with You was marketed as a young-adult novel; and for that practical, commercial reason, it was no more necessary to foreground that the plot is a contemporary version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Eugene meets Tatiana years later in Paris) than it had been to explain the relationship between the young-adult film Clueless and Jane Austen’s Emma. The publisher’s calculated soft-pedaling, though, does not obscure the brilliance with which Taylor renders Beauvais’s virtuosity at deploying a convincingly cool YA-type diction and tone while honoring many of the complexities and rigors of the intricate stanza Pushkin devised for Eugene Onegin. Just don’t scare off adolescent readers by emphasizing that side of it.
Beauvais writes an equally intriguing account of adept cultural transfer in the other direction, about a novel she translated from English to French.
I had a similar conversation with Sarah Crossan regarding the title of her Weight of Water, which I also translated into French. After many weeks of painful brainstorming, my editor came up with the perfect title for our French version: Swimming Pool. Now, I can’t quite explain to you why it’s the perfect title, but it just is. Swimming Pool. It’s mysterious, it’s attractive, it’s sexy, it’s melancholy, it’s blue-green and it’s perfect. End of story. Sarah, however, was a little underwhelmed, because of course “Swimming Pool” in English is a banal word that evokes not much more than rubbery swimming caps, eyes red from goggles, and the smell of chlorine. But see, that is what French people think, too, when they hear the word “Piscine,” while Swimming Pool is endlessly mystical.
Nor is a single change always the end of it. Not at all rarely, the same book is given different titles in Great Britain and the United States. Taylor documents one case from his experience:
. . . Leila Slimani’s Chanson douce, which was the subject of some fairly nasty emails between the British and US editors of the book. In the end, they couldn’t agree on a title, so it was published in the US as The Perfect Nanny and in the UK as Lullaby. Leila apparently had no problem with this, and it evidently didn’t do sales any harm. They did manage to agree on the same title for her next book, though, so Dans le jardin de l’ogre became Adele.
And how about even three titles? Michael Köhlmeier wrote a novel, Zwei Herren am Strand (2014), about a friendship between Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin based on their suffering from depression. It was first published as Two Gentlemen on the Beach (trans. Ruth Martin, 2016), but the title of the same translation was changed for a later edition to The Gentleman and the Tramp (2019).
Translation is not the only reason for titles to diverge. A genuine and seemingly legitimate concern for sales impelled the famous change in the first of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Sara Bobitz documents the misgivings of Arthur A. Levine, head of the Scholastic imprint, who suggested that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone become Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for fear that the British title didn’t sound magical enough. As he told Rowling in 2006, “If you think about marketing a book, it is possible that someone hears ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and thinks it’s a book about philosophy.” Rowling was a newcomer to publishing at the time, but not even the most established writers have the power to overrule market considerations. No matter how much Vladimir Nabokov insisted his autobiography be titled Speak, Mnemosyne—and he was a cantankerous insister—it ended up as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966) after an earlier version had been called Conclusive Evidence. Nabokov was forced to yield to a publisher who feared readers would not buy “a book whose title they could not pronounce.” (Typical Nabokov to take a swipe at readers.)
It’s often the lack of ready correspondence or inability to make a balanced transfer that spurs a need for change. Connotation plays a large role in the instances Beauvais cites, but connotation is needed here to correct a systems flaw arising from a lack of denotation, a lexical parallel of equal tone, weight, and import (“piscine” vs. “swimming pool”). Idioms especially cannot transfer literally, as illustrated by Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), performed frequently and reverently in bombed-out, post-war Germany before audiences weeping at its power to renew hope. German lacks the English idiom, so its title became Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen, something like “We’ve had yet another narrow escape,” capturing the spirit if not the letter of the original. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible became in German Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt), since the German term does not carry the metaphorical aspect or implication of an ordeal under severe heat and pressure. The market is quick to make title changes for a film when an idiom in the original title could lead to lack of understanding. Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief is called in German Über den Dächern von Nizza (Above the Rooftops of Nice), because the maxim in the English title (“Set a thief to catch a thief”) cannot be replicated. The title North by Northwest refers to Hamlet, obscure enough for English speakers as it is, but in German the film is called Der unsichtbare Dritte (The Invisible Third Man, perhaps purposely invoking Carol Reed’s masterpiece). Similarly, Vertigo is called Aus dem Reich der Toten (From the Realm of the Dead, reverting closely to the title of Hitchcock’s source, the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac). It isn’t that vertigo as a medical condition is unknown in the German-speaking world, but any parallel word like “Schwindelgefühle” suggests almost no metaphorical implication, at least not until W. G. Sebald expanded the literal, clinical meaning through a word play in the title of his novel Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo, trans. Michael Hulse, 1999).
While we’re at the movies, three more titles from English to German stand out from among endless possible examples. Robert Hamer’s comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets relies on a citation from Tennyson to capture its tone of ironic drollery, but lexical duplication would produce only nonsense for lack of a kindred allusion; the film is called in German Adel verpflichtet, a phrase better known by its French equivalent, “noblesse oblige.” The German title for William Wyler’s Roman Holiday works the opposite way, drawing on a common expression not rendered quite so efficiently in English. Germans will speak of two people in complete rapport as being “ein Herz und eine Seele” (“one heart and one soul”); that phrase is deftly varied by titling Wyler’s film Ein Herz und eine Krone (“one heart and one crown”), signaling how a difference in status makes a happily-ever-after ending impossible. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall undergoes a not inappropriate shift from Annie to Alvy Singer himself in its German title, Der Stadtneurotiker (The City Neurotic).
As a part-time resident of Vienna, I had a chance to observe directly a striking instance of successful cultural transfer in popular culture. It makes a pertinent case study in how alert, creative adaptation can have a profound effect on audience interest and box-office success while encapsulating the essence of a play from a new standpoint. The original production of Steven Sondheim’s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) ran for close to a thousand performances on Broadway and won many awards. The film (1966) had the same title in English but was called in German distribution Toll trieben es die alten Römer (The Ancient Romans Went at It Like Crazy), functionally indicating the time period and the tone but switching tropes. Othmar Barnert, librarian at the Austrian Theater Museum, surmises a prurient innuendo in the German title: whoever concocted it “was evidently hoping to attract larger audiences through this allusion to contemporary sex films.” The formula in the English title would be immediately recognizable to an American, or would have been when the musical opened in 1962, but it would be lost on anyone in the German-speaking world. As the website of the Vienna Volksoper asked in announcing plans to perform A Funny Thing in its 2011-2012 season, “But what does this daunting title even mean in its complexity?” going on to explain that the formulaic opening “A funny thing happened . . . ” would immediately alert an American “that we’re dealing with a farce tinged by Jewish humor dressed in a toga,” but the taglines of Jewish humor have largely disappeared in Germany and Austria, as writer-actor Miguel Herz-Kestranek documents in his book Die Frau von Pollak oder wie mein Vater jüdische Witze erzahlte (Frau von Pollak, or How My Father Told Jewish Jokes) (2011).
Another trope was needed, then. The first staging of A Funny Thing in Austria took place at the Kabarett Simpl in Vienna in 1987 under the title Zuständ’ wie im alten Rom (How Conditions Were in Ancient Rome) and enjoyed modest success. A new team struck box-office gold when producing that version at the Graumann Theater in 1992, though, after they retitled it Die spinnen, die Römer (Those Romans are Crazy), a “hook” as brilliant in linking cultural contexts as it was commercially alluring. Barnert explains what accounted for the soaring attendance: “The German title became a box-office magnet by echoing a beloved tagline that long ago gained universal recognition from the Asterix comic books and films.” Well before the early 1990s, Asterix and Obelix had become a cult phenomenon so familiar that audiences would instantly have recognized the source of the new title and would have been duly alerted by the substitution of a vanished Jewish discourse with an equally comical but different contemporary reference that they were in for entertainment on a none-too-dignified level. (The Italian translators of Asterix likewise ingeniously exploited a ready catchphrase, by the way, calling the series Sono pazzi questi Romani [These Romans are Crazy] as a parodic homage to the more serious meaning of SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus.) [Translations from German mine.]
The respect I share with Taylor and Beauvais for the role of the market and the dynamic I have been examining does not suggest unerring taste and tact, though. A whiff of crassness can creep in, as marked by a tilt toward sensation in books dealing with the Third Reich or the Holocaust. Terms like “Holocaust,” “Third Reich,” or “Hitler” sell books, as do pictures of swastikas or other Nazi accoutrements. Their perennial fascination for English-language readers is evidenced by the inclusion of key words in titles and subtitles that were not present in the originals. Ruth Klüger’s first memoir was titled in German weiter leben: Eine Jugend (Continuing to Live: A Girlhood), a laudably understated register for a book that is straightforward in its minute descriptions of the concentration camps but also meticulous, as literary historians attest, in avoiding rhetorical overkill or playing to gruesomeness. The English-language edition (translator not indicated) is less deliberately reticent in both title and subtitle. Still Alive encodes a hint of menace that the quieter weiter leben avoids, and A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered seems crudely specific and limiting compared to the original. It’s difficult to avoid seeing changes like these as not validating the judgment that “there’s no business like Shoah business.”
In a similar way, a wide range of autobiography grows narrower when Egon Schwarz’s memoir Keine Zeit für Eichendorff: Chronik unfreiwilliger Wanderjahre (No Time for Eichendorff: A Chronicle of Compulsory Journeyman Years, 1979)—its title stressing the author’s eventual profession as a scholar of literature and relegating his exile to a subtitle—becomes in English Refuge: Chronicle of a Flight from Hitler (trans. Philip Boehm, 2002), with the exile now first, the devil named by name, and the emphases reshuffled. Of course any reference in an English title to Josef von Eichendorff, a German Romantic poet, would be as lost on readers as Mann’s Lotte returning to Weimar, but publishers may have worried about the allusion even in Germany, so yet another shift of perspective occurred when Keine Zeit für Eichendorff was later reworked by placing its old subtitle first and adding an unsubtle new one. It would be instructive to trace the process of Schwarz’s own involvement, if any, in the decision to call the new edition Unfreiwillige Wanderjahre: Auf der Flucht vor Hitler durch drei Kontinente (Compulsory Journeyman Years: Flight from Hitler across Three Continents, 2009), but the change bears out what anyone already knows, that the Führer’s name attracts more attention than Eichendorff’s, with commensurate effect on the balance sheet.
One of the most perennially respected and even revered books dealing with the Holocaust traces the opposite of this hospitable attitude toward titillation or overexplicitness, on the other hand. Like Klüger’s weiter leben, which may have taken a cue in crafting its title from this distinguished predecessor, Viktor E. Frankl’s Trotzdem ja zum Leben sagen (Nonetheless Say Yes to Life, 1946) treats with unflinching immediacy the horrible atrocities of the concentration camps while exercising a measure of reticence in its title that allows the author’s individual suffering to be understood within a universal context of despair and hope, destruction and renewal. Only in later German editions was emphasis placed on the subtitle Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychologist’s Experiences in the Concentration Camps), while the drive toward larger, more universal dynamics of suffering was carried over into the English title and subtitle. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (trans. Ilse Lasch, 1946) likewise forfeits all reference to the atrocities only to make the particulars of the concentration camps emerge as more valid, graphic, and effective in the potential they reveal to destroy human personality entirely. Less particularizing specificity in the title enables a more credible account, based on a full spectrum of emotion and conflict, of how the spirit can triumph over horror.
Choices in translating are often determined by standard usage, instinct, and common sense, by culture (Eliot’s tradition) and craft (the individual talent), that is, in support of commerce. Comprehensibility is the principle. What would have been the gain in clarity, for instance, by translating Gide’s Les faux-monnayeurs as anything other than The Counterfeiters (trans. Dorothy Bussy, 1927)? Or in lexically altering Patrick Süskind’s title Das Parfum (Perfume, trans. John E. Woods, 1986)? Proper names usually remain as is; no reason to translate a character named Müller as Miller or Schmidt as Smith. Place names are adjusted as a matter of course (Österreich = Austria; Sverige = Sweden) when a different word exists in the target language, but Paris is Paris and Berlin Berlin. It would have been a dereliction in one story I translated to let the place name stay as is, however. In Doderer’s Trethofen, a traveling salesman stays overnight in a town of that name and observes from his hotel window that the residents, instead of shaking hands, kick one another savagely as their standard form of greeting. That bizarre custom is prefigured in the title: “tret” means to step or stride, but also to kick or stomp, while “Hofen” is a hamlet or a village. One of my predecessors, Astrid Ivask, had translated Trethofen many years before me as “Stepfield,” but that seemed too gentle, so I chose “Kickbury” as more fittingly vehement. (My Swiss colleague Raymond Voyat deserves praise for having brought into his title, Saint-Crépin-les-Bottes, the patron saint of shoemakers, as an amusing contrast to the violence of the townspeople.) Unaccountably, some translations of Trethofen into other languages leave the title as it is in German and thus miss the setup, the foreshadowing humor in the name of the town. I chose a different register of cultural transfer for another Doderer story, Tanz im ‘Café Kratki’ oder die Fülle der Halbstarken. To quote Wikipedia’s reliable entry, “Halbstarke is a German term describing a postwar-period subculture of adolescents—mostly male and of working class parents—that appeared in public in an aggressive and provocative way during the 1950s in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.” The word is very evocative of its period, so “juvenile delinquents,” a term just as redolent of the ’50s, sprang to my mind at once. The “Fülle” of the title suggests repletion, evoking the picture of a café filled to the rafters. At that point I was visited with a temptation I couldn’t resist and allowed myself an alliteration not in Doderer: A Dance in the Café Scratchki, or Jampacked with Juveniles. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that liberty makes me the stereotypical traitor in the guise of a translator.
Earlier I quoted Sam Taylor and Clémentine Beauvais on the tussling and tugging among author, publisher, and translator that can mark the search for just the right title, and I think anyone involved in the process will experience that eureka moment or flash of recognition (Beauvais: “It just is”) when exactly the right title is found. No such thing does or should occur in cases of lexical identity (again, Joseph and His Brothers), but they are common when inventiveness and ingenuity find the exact right solution. Translations of Rafael Sanchéz Ferlosio’s novel El Jarama reveal different levels of complexity in changing or modifying the novel’s title, the name of a river in Spain, for effectiveness in the target cultures. Not a well-known river in any case, some signal would be required outside the Iberian peninsula to explain what the title means. The German Am Jarama (trans. Helmut Freilinghaus, 1960) identifies a place name by the prepositional combination am, strongly suggesting a river; the French version is more directive in titling the novel Les eaux de Jarama (trans. J. Francis Reille, 1958). The two English translations could not be more different, one overly generic and the other highly resourceful. Margaret Jull Costa’s title, The River (trans. 2004), is generically bland, but J. M. Cohen, seizing on the fact that the novel takes place among swimmers and picknickers on a Sunday, the workers’ only free day, found a strikingly apt title, The One Day of the Week (trans. 1962).
Purists might deplore such “liberties,” but this is the right moment to point out again how subjective judgments about translation are. I find Cohen’s title perfect, while others could plausibly reject it as a self-indulgent, unwarranted distortion. (Yes, Proust is hovering in the wings and will appear shortly.) To recall David Bellos’s point, translation is not and cannot be a science with consistent norms and outcomes.
Another case study about the difference between a more straightforward and a less literal title comes to mind regarding a debate that took place before publication in English of a novel by Doderer. Ein Mord den jeder begeht appeared under the title Every Man a Murderer (trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 1964), a terse and lexically if not grammatically accurate title that sidesteps the need to replicate the relative-clause construction in English (“A Murder That Everyone Commits,” for example, would sound awkward) and conveys the meaning with clarity and efficiency. I was doing research on relations between Doderer and his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and read the correspondence involving William Koshland, a Knopf editor, “Pete” Lemay, another editor, and the translators. It shows that the first proposed title was Every Man’s Murder, suggested by the Winstons and rejected by Lemay. The Winstons then proposed borrowing a line from Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” “for each man kills the thing he loves,” and calling the novel For Each Man Kills. Richard Winston is emphatic: “I have thought of a title for the Doderer, one that is both a fairly close translation and also a quote from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’—that old chestnut. FOR EACH MAN KILLS. This will either appeal strongly to you, or perhaps seem ridiculous. It does have the advantage that it fits the theme of the book with precision.” Winston is alert in noting that the Wilde quotation and the Doderer title have some thematic congruence, but the cultural transfer by intertextuality would have created confusion by seriously misrepresenting relations between killer and killed, incidentally. No spoiler, but exactly what Winston’s proposed title does not do is fit the theme with precision.
The rightness of Beauvais’s “It just is” comes into its own when studying three creatively altered titles of works from French. In all three cases, the attuned ear is the vital organ, the instrument in validating the changes. I have long argued in favor of C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s use of a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet to title Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past in English (1934). The allusion is as apt as it is elegant in introducing an immense, complex fiction whose entire structure centers on actively conjuring memory (“I summon up remembrance of things past”). Later, more “faithful” titles, such as In Search of Lost Time, lose rhythm and cadence, presaging all too clearly a leaden, graceless prosiness worlds away from Moncrieff’s irony and command of rhythmic periodicity. How much more allusive and nuanced is Cities of the Plain for Sodome et Gomorrhe than the flat transposition of the place names. Is Within a Budding Grove or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower a better title for À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur? The first title dances; the second clodhops. Moncrieff is rebuked for adding dimensions that “aren’t there,” except that they are, for his choices negotiate Proust’s systemic tension between fascinated disgust and rhapsodic nostalgia, lyric idealism and brutal exploitation with a skill no later translation or adaptation begins to capture. The “improvements” on Moncrieff read like something a committee of literalist pedants devised.
Édouard Dujardin’s short novel Les lauriers sont coupés (1888) gained fame after it was praised by James Joyce as a first exercise in stream of consciousness, the novel that more than any other work Joyce credited with shaping his own approach to interiority. Not surprisingly, then, it was translated into English by one of the first and still one of the best exegetes of Joyce, Stuart Gilbert (1938). Lexical reproduction of the original title would have resulted in something like “The Laurels Are Cut Down,” which violates the metrical emphasis of the French and substitutes a choppy, too-heavily accented phrase whose clumsiness ruins the fleet, poignant lyricism of the original. Gilbert chose his title by way of A. E. Housman. Recognizing that the title of Dujardin’s novel is the second line of a poem by Théodore de Banville, Gilbert took the first line of the same poem (“Nous n’irons plus au bois”) in Housman’s translation (1922) and called the novel We’ll to the Woods No More, retaining the elegiac sense of loss in the very meter and preserving rhythmic cadence and echo effects through alliteration and a regular alternation of short and long ‘o’ and ‘oo’ sounds, as in the original. The acoustic itself is as essential a bearer of meaning as are the dictionary definitions of the words.
The title of Jean Giraudoux’s play La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu would likewise initially seem to have undergone a needless, arbitrary change in English until both linguistic and contextual factors are pondered; after all, Annette Kolb’s translation into German, Kein Krieg in Troja (1936), is “faithful” to the French and notably economical in its four brief words. But any English equivalent to Kein Krieg in Troja (“No Trojan War,” “No War in Troy,” or the like) is unwieldy, a forced phrase not expressive of the ironic assurance that a war will not take place, whereas the German carries the full meaning of the original in its terse but precise wording. A longer English title modeled on the French (“The Trojan War Will Not Take Place”) is merely talky and protracted in contrast to the fleetness and the balance of the French, achieved in part by the almost imperceptible but effective caesura after “Troie.” Christopher Fry, himself a gifted verse dramatist, looked within the play itself and borrowed from a metaphor used several times by Cassandra and Paris to devise his English title, Tiger at the Gates (1955). Right on the first page, Cassandra says, “We can try a metaphor. Imagine a tiger. . . . A sleeping tiger.” Shortly thereafter, she says, “The tiger is getting restive, Andromache!” Fry has used what is often referred to as poetic license to rescue Giraudoux’s title from either uninformative terseness or unattractive wordiness in English. It bears repeating, though, that Fry’s adaptation has, in its own way, that same quality of attracting possible audiences that marks a “hook” like Die spinnen, die Römer. There is a wide gap between levels of popular and high culture here, of course, but the market-driven need to create interest through a title is equally strong in both cases.
Almost anyone who has read this far will probably have instances of his or her own, especially after even a short “tramp abroad.” I was just asked by a Viennese friend, for instance, if I remember the old television series Chicago 1930, and it didn’t take more than a few seconds to work out that he meant The Untouchables with Robert Stack. But why couldn’t the show have been called “Die Unantastbaren” or something closely parallel? Returning to literature, it would be worthwhile exploring, for example, by what process of thought, and on whose part—publisher, marketing department, translator—Stefan Zweig’s Sternstunden der Menschheit was translated as The Tide of Fortune (trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, 1940), a phrase from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that reveals an unexpected congruence functioning as virtually another layer of comment on or interpretation of Zweig’s original title. A later translation, titled Decisive Moments in History, is once more lexically closer to the German, but the verve is gone; a Sternstunde is something like a triumphant, unexpected turning point, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, so the allusion to Julius Caesar is elegant, apt, and in its own way highly suitable. Moving from English, we could also contemplate what might have induced Peter Handke (or his publisher) to give his translation of Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman the title Der Idiot des Südens (The Idiot of the South) (1985), a choice that refracts Percy’s topic from a different standpoint. Likewise from English to German, a whole symposium could be held on the German title of David Foster Wallace’s gigantic novel Infinite Jest. In fact, a complete volume of essays about Unendlicher Spass, the translation by Ulrich Blumenbach (1996), has reached a third edition, and interest appears undiminished. Blumenbach cannot have been unaware that Foster’s title is a phrase from Hamlet, one in which the title character describes the jester Yorick, and it is instructive to examine in turn the various translations into German of Hamlet to determine how much Blumenbach might have been influenced in his choice of “Spass” by extant versions, and then to ponder, both in relation to the Shakespeare connection and otherwise, what additional synonyms in German might have been suitable renderings of “jest.”
Your faithful author could go on (and on), because the topic is endless. But the point is probably made; the subject of title changes, of funny things happening to them when translated, is worth considering for what it reveals about the features of language, about cultural surroundings, and about commercial needs, many of which, and more often than might at first appear, have creatively announced the theme and enhanced the appeal of a book. In parsing the contexts of change and not change, we discover the larger operations of culture, language, and literary history.
Vincent Kling is a professor of German and comparative literature at La Salle University. He has published translations of works by Gert Jonke, Heimito von Doderer, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gerhard Fritsch, Werner Kofler, and Aglaja Veteranyi. His translation of Veteranyi’s novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2013. New York Review Books will publish his translation of Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps in 2021.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 26, 2021