From The Butter Hole or Book Titles I Am Glad I Did Not Have To Translate

Work­ing as a trans­lat­or has its chal­lenges, and one of the most excit­ing, chal­len­ging and frus­trat­ing parts of trans­la­tion is to name things. Take the name Frodo Bag­gins, for example. Should you trans­late it around the word for “bag” in your lan­guage, like Tolki­en wanted? Or should you focus on the sound of the name, like the Swedish trans­lat­or did when he named him Frodo Bag­ger? Every such con­sid­er­a­tion can cost more time and energy than trans­lat­ing sev­er­al pages of reg­u­lar text. And to me, there is some­thing really scary about nam­ing things, phe­nomen­on, or char­ac­ters. It is so con­crete and per­man­ent – the thing I name will remain. It is such a big respons­ib­il­ity. Some­times I have named some­thing, for example in a video game, that I then have been stuck with for sev­er­al sequels. In some cases, I have not been pleased with my own trans­la­tion when it comes back for the third or fourth time. But then you just have to grin and bear it, because by then it is irre­voc­able. And some­times, there is no obvi­ous or easy way to trans­late a name or a title. How do you con­vey the same thing in anoth­er lan­guage, if your own lan­guage does not have any equi­val­ent?

For a long time, I have kept an ever-grow­ing list of untrans­lat­able book titles in my head, and enter­tained myself with pon­der­ing what makes them dif­fi­cult. And now I want to share part of that list with you.

The Stand / Pestens tid
(Lit­er­al Swedish title: The time of the plague)
Steph­en King, Eng­lish
A massive nov­el about how 99% of all humans die because of a man-made flu, and how the few remain­ing people gath­er around two super­nat­ur­al forces in a struggle between good and evil.

The Swedish trans­la­tion of this book stood in our book­case in my child­hood, and it actu­ally gave me one of my first lan­guage epi­phanies, long before I even read it. As a child, it can be upset­ting to dis­cov­er that well-known names are not neces­sar­ily the same every­where else in the world. And for me, one such pain­ful real­isa­tion came when I was twelve, and in the lib­rary dis­covered that the ori­gin­al title, The Stand, was nowhere near the Swedish title. It made me just as angry as when I real­ised that Kalle Anka is called Anders And in Dan­ish, and Don­ald Duck “for real”. I felt some­how betrayed, and the worst part was that I could not blame a bad trans­la­tion, it was me who was “wrong” about what the book was really called. I do not think that I had even reflec­ted over what the ori­gin­al title might be, but twelve-year old Laidi thought that some­thing along the lines of The time of the plague would have been appro­pri­ate. But The Stand? I did not even under­stand the title. It was not until I read the book in Eng­lish, years later, that I made the con­nec­tion that it is about res­ist­ance, about stand­ing your ground, about mak­ing a “last stand”, if you want to be dra­mat­ic. But trans­lat­ing it? Jeez Louise. I think that the Swedish title Pestens tid is a very good example of how you can cre­ate a whole new title for a book, that works just as well as the ori­gin­al. Or, if you ask twelve-year old Laidi, even bet­ter. But only in Swedish, because The time of the plague just sounds so… lame.

Sex­ing the Cherry / Skapel­sens kön
(Lit­er­al Swedish title: The gender of cre­ation)
Jeanette Win­ter­son, Eng­lish
A his­tor­ic­al nov­el with ele­ments of magic­al real­ism with a start­ing-point in 17th cen­tury Lon­don. The main themes are how we treat the con­cepts of male and female, and the role of women in his­tory.

When I star­ted read­ing this book, I did not know the Swedish title and I did not really think about what the title meant. Some­thing about… hav­ing sex with a berry? To take someone’s vir­gin­ity? Cherry as a euphem­ism for the clit­or­is? It was not until I read the sen­tence “But the cherry grew, and we have sexed it and it is female”, that I real­ised the double mean­ing. That “sex­ing”, apart from the more obvi­ous con­nec­tions to the human sexu­al­ity, also can mean to see check if a plant is male or female. And since the whole book is about gender, about male and female, I think it is an amaz­ing title. But how could that be trans­lated? I think that the Swedish title is quite okay, but sadly nowhere close to the ori­gin­al double mean­ing. We just do not have any such word in our lan­guage.

Fra smørhul­let / Mettes värld
(Lit­er­al Eng­lish title: From the but­ter hole / Lit­er­al Swedish title: Mette’s world)
Kirsten Ham­mann, Dan­ish
A nov­el about the incred­ibly nor­mal Mette, sit­ting in her com­fy home in Copen­ha­gen full of anxi­ety over all the things she is not doing and being in life, and over the fact that she will die one day.

I worked on this book when I stud­ied Dan­ish-Swedish trans­la­tion at uni­ver­sity. One of the tasks was to think up a fit­ting Swedish title for the book, which of course was prac­tic­ally impossible. What on Earth is a but­ter hole? It has noth­ing to do with sexu­al per­ver­sions, no mat­ter what you may think. It has to do with por­ridge. When you eat por­ridge in Den­mark, it is com­mon to make a small indent­a­tion in the middle of your por­ridge, where you put a dab of but­ter that slowly melts. And as a concept, a but­ter hole is a really nice and cosy place, a place where you feel at home and where you like to live. So, the title refers to the fact that the main char­ac­ter, Mette, is sit­ting in a but­ter hole, a safe and pleas­ant bubble that she is afraid to leave since she is afraid of everything in life. But there is no word like it in Swedish! The Swedish title, lit­er­ally “Mette’s world”, is anoth­er good example of how you can be forced to make up a com­pletely new title, that still should con­vey some­thing about the con­tent. Which Mette’s world does, even if it does not have the same spe­cif­ic mean­ing as the ori­gin­al. And this is some­thing you often have to do as a trans­lat­or, mak­ing some­thing spe­cif­ic more gen­er­ic to make it under­stand­able for a lar­ger audi­ence who lacks the cul­tur­al and lin­guist­ic know­ledge. If the people do not know short­bread, you have to let them eat cake.

A Clock­work Orange / En apelsin med urverk
(Lit­er­al Swedish title: An orange with clock­work)
Anthony Bur­gess, Eng­lish
A dysto­pi­an six­ties clas­sic about a soci­ety char­ac­ter­ised by mean­ing­less viol­ence, drugs and mer­ci­less­ness. Prob­lem­at­ises what there is left of a human being if you remove free will – even if it is the free will to com­mit evil acts.

I think this title has had a lot of people from a lot of dif­fer­ent lan­guages scratch­ing their heads. Not only over how to trans­late it, but to start with over what it really is. You try it, close your eyes and try to make a men­tal pic­ture of a clock­work orange. How did it go? This title is a good example of one of the biggest dif­fer­ences between Eng­lish and Swedish: writ­ing apart versus writ­ing togeth­er. Since in Eng­lish you write everything sep­ar­ately, you can eas­ily cre­ate a name, phe­nomen­on or title con­sist­ing of sev­er­al dif­fer­ent words, like a clock­work orange. But in Swedish, you put words togeth­er to form longer com­pound words. If you try to trans­late these long units from Eng­lish to Swedish, you usu­ally end up with one extremely long and unread­able word. Which is why the Swedish title is divided up to a sen­tence instead. This title is actu­ally not trans­lated to Swedish any­more in gen­er­al, prob­ably because of the Stan­ley Kubrick cult film adapt­a­tion with the same name. And I have to say that I am rather glad of that, even though I am usu­ally the one advoc­at­ing that we should dare use our own lan­guage in these Engli­fied times. But the Swedish title just does not sound as good, and above all, it does not sound as put togeth­er as the ori­gin­al.

Neji­makitori Kur­onikuru / The Wind-up Bird Chron­icle / Fågeln som vrider upp världen
(Lit­er­al Swedish title: The bird that winds up the world)
Haruki Murakami, Japan­ese
A sur­real nov­el about the unem­ployed house­man Toru Okada try­ing to find his miss­ing wife. It deals with sub­jects like par­al­lel worlds, and what real­ity really is.

This title gets a bit trick­i­er since the ori­gin­al is in Japan­ese, which is a lan­guage I do not under­stand. But as far as I can make out, the Eng­lish title comes fairly close to the Japan­ese one. And in any case, just see­ing the Eng­lish trans­la­tion next to the Swedish one says some­thing about how dif­fer­ently you can trans­late the same thing. The title refers to a bird that the main char­ac­ter, Toru Okada, hears in his garden. To him, it sounds like it is wind­ing some­thing up. He also gets the nick­name Mr. Wind-Up Bird, and parts of the books have the head­er “The wind-up bird chron­icle”. Here is an even clear­er example of how Eng­lish dif­fers from Swedish con­cern­ing word-stack­ing and writ­ing words apart. The Wind-up Bird Chron­icle is one unit, just like A Clock­work Orange. But how does that work in Swedish, where one unit should be one single word? Uppv­rid­nings­få­gelkrönik­an or The Windin­gup­bird­chron­icle does not exactly rest easy on the tongue. So the Swedish trans­lat­ors have approached the title dif­fer­ently, ref­er­en­cing that Okada thinks that it is the Wind-up Bird who winds up the keys of the world, so that the world keeps mov­ing for­ward. The res­ult is, to my taste, a more poet­ic and beau­ti­ful title than the Eng­lish title.

What dif­fi­cult book titles can you think of, and what makes them untrans­lat­able? Please let me know!

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