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Deadly games, a blaze, and a song: book titles in translation

Speaking from experience, it is often incredibly difficult to come up with a good title for a book. A buzzword we often use is ‘catchy’. But what makes for a catchy title? And what are the implications for other markets? Once you’ve decided on what you proudly think is the best book title anyone has ever come up with, your job is done. Or is it? Unfortunately, there’s a chance that somewhere in the world there’s a publisher who has acquired the translation rights for this great book with this even greater title. Then suddenly a brilliant translator informs them that a word for word translation won’t work: maybe a word or expression doesn’t exist in the target language, or the syntax is too different, or maybe it just wouldn’t appeal to the target market which has different cultural values, tastes, and preferences. Now what? You have to come up with something that works!

What’s the catch?

Having asked a few people what their three favourite books were, Catch-22 was one of the frontrunners and, conveniently, it turns out to be a good example. The original title is very interesting in that Joseph Heller’s book coined the phrase, which then turned into a universal idiomatic expression for a ‘dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions’. Great, but how do you make this work in other languages? The first German edition was called Der IKS Haken (‘The IKS Hook’). It works because the German noun Haken can mean ‘hook’ as well as ‘catch’. After the film came out in 1970, however, the English title Catch-22 became so widely known, that the German publishers decided to also use it for the book title. For comparison, in Spanish there’s no Catch-22, but a Trampa-22 (trampa = ‘trap’), and in Italian we’re looking at Comma 22 (comma = ‘paragraph’), which seems slightly more obvious than the Swedish choice: Moment 22.

Catching fire

How about some more recent titles then? Let’s take the Hunger Games. The immensely successful trilogy consists of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I found that the series name is the same in most languages, but it looks like the German translator and publisher decided to fry up an Extrawurst, going with The Tributes of Panem. They also followed their own agenda for the individual titles: Tödliche Spiele (‘Deadly Games’), Gefährliche Liebe (‘Dangerous Love’), and Flammender Zorn (‘Flaming Fury’). Note the use of adjectives: ‘deadly’, ‘dangerous’, ‘flaming’! Other publishers also decided that some changes were required. In French, volumes 2 and 3 are called L’Embrasement and La Révolte (‘rebellion’) respectively. I can see how the French publisher couldn’t resist embrasement, given that it means both ‘blaze’ and ‘unrest’, words which reflect the content. In Spanish, the translators followed the same model as Suzanne Collins for the third book, combining the direct translations sinsonte (‘mockingbird’) and arrendajo (‘Eurasian jay’): Sinsajo. The Italians decided to stick to Hunger Games, but translated the other two as La ragazza di fuoco (‘The girl of fire’) and Il canto della rivolta (‘The song of the revolt’).

Being on fire

A personal favourite of mine, not originally written in English, is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series. The original Swedish titles are: Män som hatar kvinnor (‘Men who hate women’), Flickan som lekte med elden (‘The girl who played with fire’), and Luftslott som sprängdes (‘Castle in the air that got blown up’). Quercus, the UK publisher, thought that ‘catchy’ didn’t really apply to the Swedish title and chose to feature ‘The Girl’ in all the titles, peppered with some nice idiomatic expressions: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. For once, the Germans decided that short nouns were the way to go: Verblendung (‘blindness’), Verdammnis (‘perdition’), and Vergebung (‘forgiveness’). The success justifies the choice and credit must be given for finding words with the same prefix, but even as a native speaker I can’t ever tell the titles apart because they look and sound too similar. Compare this to the French approach: Les hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes (‘Men who didn’t like women’), La fille qui rêvait d’un bidon d’essence et d’une allumette (‘The girl who dreamt of a can of petrol and a match’), and La reine dans le palais des courants d’air (‘The queen in a draughty palace’). I can only guess that the concept here was to use positive and almost romantic words, while giving them a negative meaning by putting them into context: using the negation of aimer instead of haïr, rêver in context with a can of petrol and a match, and a queen in a palace that seems to have fallen into decay.

Whether it’s for linguistic reasons or simply a matter of preference, I think it is fascinating how some of these translations manage to give the book a slightly different twist. Arguably, the first thing you notice about a book in the shop is the cover and—if the cover is interesting enough—the title. Now imagine two books with the same cover, but one says Catching Fire and the other one Dangerous Love on it. Would you have the same expectations? I wouldn’t!

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