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!