Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Translations: Faithful or Fluent?


Anyone who has graced the inside of a bookstore in the past few months will no doubt have seen the display of the international, smash-hit trilogy from Sweden, “Men Who Hate Women,” “Flicken Som Lekte Med Eldren,” and “The Air Castle that Blew Up,” also called The Milliennium Series. You guessed it -- these are not the titles you’ll find at Barnes and Noble. You may recognize them as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”


Translating books from one language into another is not an exact science, as shown by the differences between the above titles. And when a book is gobbled up by 30 million people in 40 countries, as this has been, there are bound to be differences between what makes sense – and more importantly, what sells – in one country, versus another. So, though translators can take credit for being an indirect part of the publishing phenomenon, so can book marketers. The author of the series, the late Swedish journalist, Stieg Larssen (who died of a heart attack at age 50, in 2004, just months before seeing any of this amazing success) gave his first book the title, “Men Who Hate Women,” which underscores one of the series’ core themes; however, I can just hear the book’s American marketer at the meeting:


Marketer: The title has to go -- stores will probably stick it in Psychology next to ‘Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus.”


Larssen’s agent: But Stieg wanted this title! It’s what he wanted to say about --


Marketer:  But that title won’t sell. We need something with …  with mystery, and something “now,” something hip -- body piercings or tattoos or -- anything. Men hating women is so Seventies.  No, it’s gotta be something about The Girl.


And the rest is history (well, recent history). But the result was that though some countries chose to be faithful to the original, “Men Who Hate Women,” plenty of others sided with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”


So, having read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” myself, I checked out a few of the translated titles from around the world (thank you, Google Translator), and here’s what I found:




The French title, “Les hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes,” or “Men who didn’t like women,” followed the Swedish in spirit, differing only in verb choice and tense. What struck me about the French title, though, was how it showed what many of my French students do – which is to say what something is NOT, rather than what it is. For example, a French person seems often more inclined to say, “It is not sunny today,” rather than, “It’s cloudy today.” So it follows that French would “not like” women over “hating” them – never mind the qualitative difference between the two emotions.


And yet the Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese followed the French, though choosing the more amorous “did not LOVE,” over “did not LIKE”, as in “Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres,” and “Os Homens Que Não Amavam as Mulheres.” or “Men who did not love women.” I wondered if the “didn’t like/didn’t love* construction were particular to Latin-based languages, but the Italians (“Uomini che odiano le donne”) and the Portuguese from Portugal (“Os Homens que Odeiam as Mulheres”) went with “Men Who Hate Women.”


Another curious thing about the “did not like/did not love” construction is why the verb tense is in the past (imperfect) tense in these three Latin-root languages. The Swedish title is in the present tense – indicating a regular, routine activity, as in Men Who (always) Hate Women. Perhaps by putting the verb tense in the imperfect (which gives a sense of continuity in the past – more like, “Men who never liked/loved women; or men who used to never like/love women), the French, Spanish, and Portuguese reader can better sense that these are certain men and certain women in a certain time, as in a novel – as opposed to men in everyday life who routinely hate women.


And while the Finnish are reading “Men Who Hate Women” -- “Miehet jotka vihaavat naisia,” the Russians are trying a unique marketing strategy, with the first three words of the “Dragon” title in English, followed by the Cyrillic “Tattoowirovki Drakon-na,” as in "The Girl With The татуировки дракона". The Icelandic and Greek titles also did a little mix-and-match with: "The Girl með The Dragon Tattoo" and "Το Κορίτσι Με Το Dragon Tattoo."


Interrupting this neat little divide between “Men” and “Dragon” are the German titles (for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.), which dispensed with “The Girl” theme entirely and went with, “Verblendung,” “Verdamnis,” and “Vergebung” for the three books: “The Blinding (or ‘Blending-in’),” “The Damnation,” and “Forgiveness (or “Redemption”).” Though Stieg Larsson may be rolling in his grave with these titles (they seem to suggest the outcome to each book), the alliteration of the titles is probably a book marketer’s dream.


Translations have always wreaked verbal havoc, or prompted many a laugh or cringe. Anyone who’s every sat through a movie with subtitles can relate. I mean, how do you translate Humphrey Bogart saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to his long-lost love, Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”? The French went with “à votre santé,” or “to your health,” even using the formal “your” – which not only seems stiff but so very un-Bogart. Maybe French audiences swoon when they read this line, as Bogart lifts his champagne glass, that certain look in his eye. A literal – and impossible -- rendering might conjure up: “Voici te regarde, cherie,” which would leave Parisians howling either in laughter or in pain at such mangling. (Maybe it does not even matter what Bogie says – his look may say it all.)


Being both faithful and fluent to the original text is an ideal not often achieved, except through luck, if both languages happen to have similar constructions or at least similar ways of conveying the same idiom or expression. The 17th-century French philosopher and writer, Gilles Menage, known in his time as a cultivator of wit and elegant conversation, thought the combination of faithful and fluent was “like women – either beautiful or faithful, but not both.” (Ah, zose French!)


The Language Lady’s next blog will look inside the pages of the English translation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to see just how faithful and fluent – or not – the translator was. As I read “Dragon,” I found quite a few oddly worded passages, which had me guessing as to the translator’s nationality the whole way through, with the answer (googled as I hit the final page) almost as much a surprise as the actual ending.   A votre santé, kids.










1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article. You have a point with painfull translation.