To translate or not to translate?

I was chatting to a friend about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – which, I should add, I haven’t read – and it got me wondering about titles and translations. Most novels published into English have their titles translated too – sometimes differently in different translations (have you read The Outsider by Albert Camus or The Stranger by Albert Camus? Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal or Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal?) But usually they find their way into English.

But not Les Miserables. Is that just because it doesn’t translate easily? But what about – and this is the only other example I could think of off the top of my head – Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan? That could easily be Goodbye Sadness [I meant to write Hello, but see comments on this!], though maybe it’s missing something that’s in the original; my French is far, far away from idiomatic levels, so somebody else would have to tell me.

At least one of you is thinking right now about Proust and A la recherche du temps perdu, I guarantee it. That’s been translated as Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time – and is still known as the French title, of course. ‘Remembrance of things past’ is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, and I had heard a story that the equivalent line, in the French translation of Sonnet 30, was ‘a la recherche du temps perdu’… but, sadly, the internet has no evidence for that. There goes a fun anecdote.

Can you think of other books which kept their non-English title when translated into English? Or maybe the polymaths among you can tell me whether or not English novels often keep their titles when they are translated.

26 thoughts on “To translate or not to translate?

  • January 9, 2018 at 3:36 pm
    Permalink

    Yep, Le Grand Meaulnes was the other one I thought of immediately.

    As it happens, I’m embarking on a year-long readalong of Les Mis (it has 365 chapters). In preparation I read the book The Novel of the Century by David Bellos, which includes some discussion of why it’s been difficult to translate the title. I think it’s one of those words that have many different shades of meaning that correspond to different English words, and selecting only one of them is so limiting. But there’s a problem with keeping the French — it does NOT mean “miserable,” the look-alike English word! Such are the difficulties of translation.

    There is a new translation titled “The Wretched,” which emphasizes the downtrodden poor who are at its heart. But it loses the sense of “those in need of mercy,” of the divine grace that is trying to break through our wretchedness.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 3:44 pm
    Permalink

    The only other one I can think of is “Les Liasons Dangereuses,” for which I don’t think the title has been translated for the book version, but of course was for the film. And that reminds me – I really want to read it.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 3:52 pm
    Permalink

    “Bonjour” doesn’t only mean “Goodbye “. It is a daylong greeting, and so can also possibly mean “Hello” — a bit like its literal version in English: “Good Day”. It really is a sort of general way of greeting someone.
    ‘Suite Française’ was another more recent novel that though it wasn’t a translation, had a French title— maybe that was just considered chic?

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 4:59 pm
    Permalink

    I think maybe not always and that each case should be looked at individually. I mean, I’m the one who couldn’t read a particular translation of War and Peace because Andrei was given as Andrew and I don’t want things that anglicised. Also, I was uncomfortable with a modern translation of Colette when her mother’s pet-name for her, Minet-Cheri, was rendered as Little Darling – I wanted the effect of the French original! It’s hard with titles, but the ones you cite definitely sound better in the French!

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 6:01 pm
    Permalink

    All Quiet On The Western Front is Nicht Neues Im West (Nothing new in the west) in German always struck me as a rather free but poetic translation.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 9:16 pm
    Permalink

    Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, as it was called in translation, is actually Jeder Stirbt für sich Allein in German, which literally means ‘everyone/each man dies alone’. Slightly different meaning, I think.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 10:03 pm
    Permalink

    No matter how ‘untranslatable’ they might be, the ones that are *always* translated are titles in languages that don’t use an alphabet with letters, e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 10:57 pm
    Permalink

    That is the thing with famous books. I think today with the musical and movie it is, in Swedish, also known as Les Miserable. However, the Swedish title of the book is, in my own English translation, ‘The Misfits of Society’. Thinking of it, it is probably a good translation. That is not all the cases with translation of titles in Swedish.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 11:03 pm
    Permalink

    There’s also Madame Bovary – calling it Mrs Bovary would really take a lot away from it! I actually have a Penguin pocket classic of Le Grand Meaulnes which has been translated in this case to The Lost Estate. I don’t know enough French to know how good of a translation that is though. However, since I read Bonjour Tristesse recently, I would have to say that in context with the ending of the book it makes more sense to think of it as ‘hello sadness’ rather than goodbye.

    Reply
    • January 10, 2018 at 10:02 am
      Permalink

      Le Grand Meaulnes means ‘Big Meaulnes’ – the name of the central character! I don’t think that’s ever used as the English title (understandably).

      Reply
      • January 10, 2018 at 1:34 pm
        Permalink

        It actually could be translated as The great Meaulnes and that’s also where the title The Great Gatsby comes from – directly influenced by Le Grand Meaulnes.

        Reply
  • January 10, 2018 at 2:39 am
    Permalink

    Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ has maintained its Bengali name although the translated name often accompanies it- Song Offerings. Most of his novels when translated are often known by their English name. This may be because of the inaccessibility of the language to the English speaking world, whereas French or German, or Spanish might be more accessible.

    Reply
  • January 10, 2018 at 8:44 am
    Permalink

    The only one in French I can contribute is La Dame aux Camélias, which seems pretty easily translatable but perhaps sounds more pleasingly exotic in its original language. When it comes to other languages I can only think of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf.

    Reply
  • January 10, 2018 at 1:40 pm
    Permalink

    As a native French and German speaker and translator I’ve thought of this often. In recent years it’s been done more and more with titles translated from the English to German, even French. The Englush title is kept, especially when it’s a bestseller like Gone Girl because the title is like a brand name and those are rarely translated.
    The examples you mention, in my opinion, all have different reasons though. Bonjour Tristesse is also the name of the poem by Eluard, quoted at the beginning Of the novel.
    And Bonjour means Good day, not good bye. In English that sounds weird, translated as title.

    Reply
  • January 10, 2018 at 4:22 pm
    Permalink

    As you might know, I am German but have been a longtime member of an international book club. We have always wondered about translated titles, some of them are hardly recognizable. We often think the new titles are mainly chosen to sell better in that language. While sometimes I agree with changing the meaning of the title, often it is rather weird.

    The same thing happens with films, btw. I often have no idea what film my German friends are talking about when they just mention the title.

    Reply
  • January 10, 2018 at 7:09 pm
    Permalink

    Colette’s “The Cat”, “L’Autre Femme”, “Cheri”, “Claudine a l’ecole”, “Le pur et l’impur” all seem to me to have identical titles in English translations. How about Mann’s “Die Zauberberg”, “Der Tod in Venedig”, “Joseph und seine Brüder” (and indeed the translations of the four individual parts) which seem to my very limited sense of German to be directly translated into English.

    Reply
    • January 10, 2018 at 10:09 pm
      Permalink

      Sorry, I was pointing out the number that kept either their original title OR where the title is literally translated!

      Reply
  • January 11, 2018 at 9:16 pm
    Permalink

    You were right, this is a great subject for a blog post!

    I wonder if Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would have been as successful in the English speaking world if they had faithfully translated the original Swedish title which was: Men Who Hate Women.

    Reply
  • January 11, 2018 at 9:39 pm
    Permalink

    A lot of the books with titles left in French were first published some time ago – I’ve always wondered if that is partly to do with publishers at that time expecting their readers to have some school French enough for the title. Similarly in books of a certain age characters occasionally talk to each other in French without any translation.

    Reply
  • January 11, 2018 at 10:13 pm
    Permalink

    The first that comes to the mind of this Canadian is Prochain épisode by Hubert Aquin. The most important novel of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the 1967 translation by Penny Williams keeps the French title. However, the edition in print today, translated by Aquin’s friend Sheila Fischman, is titled Next Chapter. Sheila is Canada’s celebrated translator, so I defer to her good judgement, though I do like the way the original trips off the tongue.

    Reply
  • January 12, 2018 at 4:05 am
    Permalink

    I adopted a baby monkey after I found him on the side of the road next to his mother’s lifeless body. The baby didn’t know what to do and was sad and crying so I decided to take him with me and help raise him. So I decided to daily post a YouTube video of our baby monkey so everyone can see him. Here’s my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYm1jZ-9CFQD1inehrhYcIg

    Reply
  • January 12, 2018 at 11:01 am
    Permalink

    I think of Kafka here. I read The Metamorphosis as an undergraduate, but I also see it advertised as The Transformation. I had a German colleague when I taught rhetoric in the US who briefly explained how ‘ungeziefer’ doesn’t really translate into English, putting translators into a tricky spot when attempting to convey how Gregor Samsa has transformed.

    Reply
  • January 12, 2018 at 12:00 pm
    Permalink

    Surely ‘Bonjour’ never means Goodbye, but always Hello or Good Morning. I think Sagan’s title was inspired by Good Morning Heartache, the Billie Holliday song.

    Reply
    • January 12, 2018 at 12:06 pm
      Permalink

      See my note above! It was a bit of brainfreeze on my part – but I didn’t want to change in the text because it would render the comments nonsensical :)

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: