Scott Moncrieff’s title Remembrance of Things Past is well know as not being a direct translation of the title of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, but an atmospheric equivalent culled from Shakespeare. Translating titles turns out to be a more complicated art than one might have imagined. Titles like War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House are fairly straightforward, but it doesn’t take too much effort to think of titles which just can’t be translated into a foreign language. Les Misérables is directly rendered, untranslated, into most languages, with or without the accent. The equivalent just takes too many words to render. “The poor, wretched, miserable people” just doesn’t have a ring to it. The Germans, with customary thoroughness have translated it as Die Elenden, but seem always to include, as a subtitle almost, Les Misérables. It’s just been translated into Urdu, where its title is Mizraab, which I’m guessing means something similar. Notre Dame de Paris almost sounds more interesting as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Of troublesome titles Catch-22 is a good example discussed in this OxfordWords blog. It’s an invented idiom, which sets the translator an almost unsolvable problem.

13060736_O_1One of the surprising items in that blog post is how Steig Larsson’s Millennium series, The Girl with . . . , has that unifying title form in the English translated versions only, not in the original. The latest book in the series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz, has the Swedish title Det som inte dödar oss which translates literally as “That which does not kill us”. France goes for the fairly literal, Ce qui ne me tue pas; Spanish follows suit a bit more accurately, and expanding it, with Lo que no te mata te hace más fuerte; Italy and the Netherlands follow the literal path with Quello che non uccide and Wat ons niet zal doden. I wonder how Nietzsche feels about all this. Tactfully perhaps the German publisher has chosen the title Die Verschwörung (the conspiracy). Perhaps surprisingly the English translator of the latest book has been changed as well as the author. The first three books were translated by Reg Keeland; the latest one by George Goulding. I would have thought that continuity of translator would have helped to gloss over any stylistic differences between the “real” Larsson and the new one. Goulding seems however to be David Lagercrantz’s regular translator which no doubt explains the decision.

I have lately been playing around with a translation of Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement (1947). As the final paragraph of the book reveals, the title comes from a quotation. The full paragraph reads

Qui a dit: ‘Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères?’

And the answer, after recourse to Wikipédia, is Pascal in his Pensées, Fragment 142. For the troubled translator the real question is how well do French people know this, or would most of them have to go through the same sort of search? As far as I’m aware there’s no direct English equivalent tag regretting the idleness of royalty: maybe we cared less about whether our rulers were bored or not. Perhaps I need to look in Alice in Wonderland. As a quotation, familiar one assumes to some educated French people, it’s a bit like Ill Met by Moonlight, the title of W. Stanley Moss’ book, turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde, and covering a World War II escapade eventually recounted by the true protagonist, Patrick Leigh Fermor in Abducting a General, to be published by New York Review Books in November. Do you translate that title, leave it as is because “everyone” knows it, or look in the standard French edition of Shakespeare, and take what they say there in Le songe d’une nuit d’été as the title? I just don’t know.

My skimpy, casual research suggests that in the case of Un roi sans divertissement the answer is no, the French don’t recognize the title as having any significance Pascalian or otherwise. A film was made under that title in 1963, but who remembers non-blockbuster films from back then? Maybe I have to go to the library and look up the standard translation of Pascal — but then of course I know that would certainly not be a tag familiar to most educated folks. None of the versions I can think of sound exactly convincing. “A king with no pastime” is pretty blah; “A king without diversions” sounds a bit traffic-report like. “A king with nothing to keep him busy” is the right sort of sense, but is surely clunky. Maybe “A king with nothing to do”? “A king with nothing on” might best be avoided. Part of my problem is that I suspect it’s not really a great title to have given the book in the first place: true it’s about an energetic detective, bored in his retirement, taking over-active action in an old murder case. But to me the dragging in of royalty just colors it too much. “A king with idle hands” or a translator with empty mind. “Idle hands: devil’s work” may be it, but it floats free of the original.

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