Matthew Pritchard – Translation Troubles

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For those of you who have read my debut novel, Scarecrow, you’ll know that the title is central to the plot. However, when the novel was translated into German, the title was changed to Die Stunde des Puppenspielers (The Hour of the Puppeteer). I wasn’t too miffed about the change, as the substitute title is relevant to the story (although I don’t think it sounds quite as mysterious and menacing as the original) but the experience set me thinking about the titles of books and films, and the way they are translated.

It seems that the reading and cinema-going public in the UK, Ireland and the USA, are happy with figurative titles that evoke the book’s essence. But elsewhere, it seems publishers prefer titles that give a more literal interpretation of a book’s contents, which can lead to results that are confusing, inaccurate or downright hilarious. (Spanish is the only foreign language I speak so, unless otherwise indicated, all of the examples given will be from that language. To avoid confusion, translated titles will be underlined like this.)

First up are the translated titles which ignore the original and substitute some vague reference to a plot point. For example, Patricia Cornwell’s From Potter’s Field is known as A Nameless Death and Black Notice becomes Identity Unknown. Peter Benchley’s blockbuster, Jaws is simply called Shark. (Curiously, a later film about giant crocodiles, Lake Placid, is called Mandíbulas in Spanish which translates as Jaws. Go figure.)

Next are the titles that are difficult or impossible to translate. Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses is accurately translated as Nudos y Cruces in Spanish, but the translation loses the subtle play on words contained in the original. Agatha Christie fares quite badly in this field. Her book One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is snappily titled Death Visits the Dentist, while the Poirot novel, The Hollow, becomes Blood in the Swimming Pool. Some of Elmore Leonard’s books suffer a similar fate: Get Shorty becomes How to Conquer Hollywood, while Up In Honey’s Room becomes The Day of Hitler.

Of course, this process flows both ways. Stieg Larsson’s first book in the Millenium trilogy was actually titled Men Who Hate Women in Swedish, which was of course changed to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the English-language version, although the second book was translated accurately, and for the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, I think they actually improved on the original: Luftslottet som sprängdes, which is literally, The Air Castle that was Blown Up.

Then there are the translations that represent pointless tinkering. One of my favourites in this category is the film, Alien. You’d think this one was a no brainer, as Alien is the same word in Spanish: same spelling, same meaning. But the translator just couldn’t resist adding a little something extra, modifying the title to Alien: el octavo pasajero (Alien: the eighth passenger).

But a special mention must go to those title translations that manage to reveal some vital plot point. John Le Carré’s masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is translated into Spanish as The Mole. Now, in the English version, you have to do a fair bit of reading before the mere existence of a mole is even mentioned, whereas you get told it on the cover in Spanish. But my all time favourite has to be Robert Harris’s Archangel, which in Spanish (***SPOILER ALERT HERE***) is called El Hijo de Stalin (Stalin’s Son). I think you’ll all agree, it takes a special kind of talent to translate a title so that it actually gives away the book’s ending.

Anyway, does anyone else have any title translations they’d like to share with us here?

I look forward to seeing your comments.

Matthew Pritchard worked as a journalist in Spain for ten years, and based his first novel, Scarecrow, on his experiences there. His second novel, Werewolf, is a historical thriller set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWII. His books are known for the punchy, precise nature of their prose and for the meticulous research that underpins them. His third book, Broken Arrow, sees a return to southern Spain and is due out in October 2015. His favourite crime authors are Ian Rankin, Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. He is blogging about the creation of his fourth novel, Stolen Lives, at www.matthewpritchard.net   

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