The worst 'translations' of book titles


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The worst 'translations' of book titles

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Muokkaaja: toukokuu 1, 2010, 1:57 pm

Sometimes you see a translated book where you wonder why they wanted to do that to the title. Books with titles that are perfectly fitting for the book and that would be easily translatable (no puns etc.), and they made it into something completely different, more generic, more sentimental, something that tells you much less about what kind of book it is.

My 'favourite' one is Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue, which was translated into Dutch as Mooi Dik is Niet Lelijk (Beautifully Fat isn't Ugly). How can a mere title miss the whole point of a book so completely?

One I saw today (and which reminded me that I wanted to start a topic like this) was The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which was translated into Dutch as Gebroken Licht (Broken Light). Why did they feel they had to change anything about the original title? Why did they have to change it into a title this mushy?

OK, you get my point, now send in your examples.

I have put the touchstones on the translated titles only and not the originals (edit: unless they don't work on the translated titles), so skeptics can easily see it's the same book. I would also appreciate if you'd translate your titles back into English so we can all see what they did to the titles.

toukokuu 1, 2010, 2:58 pm

Sometimes they are not easy to translate. The Horse Whisperer became in French L'Homme qui murmurait à l'oreille des chevaux - literally, The man who murmured into horses' ears - but I can't think of a better way of saying it!

toukokuu 1, 2010, 4:20 pm

Now that you've got my "grouch" up;
How did "Glassperlenspeil" become "Magister Ludi" ?

What would be wrong with "Glass bead play" or "Glass Bead Game" ? or eve "The Bead Game" ?

toukokuu 1, 2010, 4:37 pm

modalursine -- I have that book, and it has both "The Glass Bead Game" and "Magister Ludi" as titles on the cover, with "Magister Ludi" as the main title and "The Glass Bead Game" somewhere underneath. I think it depends on the edition in this case. Mine is a trade paperback from the 70s.

toukokuu 1, 2010, 4:52 pm

From what I know of publishers, I wouldnʻt expect them to relish the title "The Glass Bead Game", though some have, as rowmyboat says (4) given it "equal time". But then I wouldnʻt expect them to come up with a Latin phrase, either. So I donʻt know how "Magister Ludi" got started.

In actual usage, in Classical Latin, a "ludus" could mean "game" but usually meant a school of gladiators; Romans didnʻt generalize much about the concept of "game".

toukokuu 1, 2010, 4:52 pm

I have two translations of that. When I first bought it, it was available as Magister Ludi, the bead game. A new translation came out called The Glass Bead Game. Master of the Game doesn't strike me as too farfetched.


toukokuu 1, 2010, 9:02 pm

"Ludusʻ b t w (in the snese of "game" didnʻt find its way into the Latin-derived languages. Their words seem to have come from
"iocus" (sport, or joke) as does the Enlgish "joke": SP. juego; It. ; giuoco,
Rom. joc. and the almost unrecognizable Fr. jeu.

toukokuu 1, 2010, 9:16 pm

I regard Remembrance of Things Past as a very bad "translation" of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust It evokes a blandly nostalgic English poem and softens Proustʻs title which is literally "In Search of Lost Time", a title that some critics writing in English are beginning to use.

A pretty good example of a changed meaning which sill keeps the spirit of the original title is the Czech translation of Whoʻs Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I donʻt remember the wording of. It was a Czech phrase meaning "Whoʻs Afraid of Franz Kafka?" (It has interior assonance in Czech, and so parallels the evocation of nursery rhyme in the English title.)

toukokuu 2, 2010, 2:05 am

> 5 So I donʻt know how "Magister Ludi" got started.

The original subtitle: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften.

> 7 Ludus ... in the snese of "game" didnʻt find its way into the Latin-derived languages.

There are derived forms, of course, like ludique or the recent ludiciel.

toukokuu 2, 2010, 3:02 am

"There are derived forms (of ludus) . . ."

Yes, what came to mind was suffixes like the "-lude" of "prelude" --something played in advance-- ; and to "collude" is to have an untrustworthy "team mate".
I donʻt recognize "the recent ludiciel". (?)
"Ludique" would mean "and games" or "and schools" (as of gladiators) in Classical Latin.

toukokuu 2, 2010, 4:12 am

>8 rolandperkins: I agree with you re Remembrance of things past, I always wondered if the "temps perdu" was closer to "wasted time", considering that "j'ai perdu mon temps" means I've wasted my time. But I haven't read it so don't know.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 27, 2010, 1:35 am

The Movie Title for Platoon became puraton in Japan, rather than puratsun or the closest Japanese equivalent. As a result, some Japanese thought it meant Platonic love and that in turn was (mis)taken to mean that it was about homosexuality among US troops in Vietnam! Or maybe my friend -- a fellow editor, who was Japanese -- was pulling my leg.

I am less amused when witty titles in English change when crossing the Atlantic. Eg. James Hamilton-Paterson's 7/10 which became The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds in the USA (it touchstones to the usanian title with Seven Tenths).

Re. The Remembrance of Things Past. Is it not remarkable for being beautiful? I think a beautiful but misleading translation better than an ugly one as it promises a beautiful translation, but worse than an ugly one for being more convincing...

toukokuu 27, 2010, 4:31 am

Does anyone remember the English title of
Sartreʻs Morts sans Sepulture? (The literal translation of the original French is "Dead without Burial"). I remember thinking it was way off base == nothing like the French in meaning, though equally metaphorical.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 5:47 am

>13 rolandperkins: According to wiki, it is called The Victors.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 5:52 am

On 13-14:

Thanks, overthemoon. Yes, I remember seeing that title decades ago, and thinking how poor a translation it was of Morts sans Sepulture.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 7:05 am

I've always thought that Die Entdeckung der Currywurst was a great title, sadly let down by its English translation The invention of curried sausage. In the same neck of the woods, Sansibar, oder der letzte Grund gets translated as Flight to afar, which is good in its way, but still rather prosaic compared to the original. Did they think that readers would want their money back when they found it was set in the Baltic and not the Indian Ocean?

A source of great puzzlement to me at one time was the French "translation" of Ivanhoe as Ivanhoé - it took ages before the penny dropped and I realised which book my French friend was talking about.

UK/US versions of titles are a quite separate category of irritation, especially for those of us who live in countries where both versions are on sale...

toukokuu 27, 2010, 7:22 am

And another one, each one more explicit to what the book's about: Krabat in German, Meester van de zwarte molen (master of the black mill) in Dutch, and The Satanic Mill in English.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 7:25 am

A curious translation is the Spanish of the old
comic strip Mutt and Jeff: Benitin y Eneas (2nd i of Benitin is accented): "{Little} Benito and Aeneas" which puts them in the order" JEFF and Mutt. It retains some affinity with the original. as Muttʻs first name was Augustus, and the heroic poem by Vergil on Aeneas was of the Augustan era.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 27, 2010, 10:06 am

16, 17> Could those of you posting non-English titles please give us poor mono-lingual Americans the literal translations?

ETA: Actually I took a couple years of French in High School so I'm not completely mono-lingual, but I am mostly.

To my eye in "Die Entdeckung der Currywurst", Currywurst looks like it could be curried sausage but I have no idea if Entdeckung means invention.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 10:50 am

Entdeckung means Discovery

toukokuu 27, 2010, 11:07 am

#19 Krabat is a name and I already gave the translation for the rest.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 11:28 am

Currywurst is a grilled sausage sprinkled with a bright yellow powder.

toukokuu 27, 2010, 11:47 am

>19 jjwilson61:,20
My point about Currywurst was not that the translation is strictly incorrect, but that it is too literal and loses the ambiguity and cultural resonance of the original. Entdeckung corresponds to both invention and discovery in English - the German title allows you to read it either way, so you have the tension between the prosaic food technology explanation and the slightly absurd idea of explorers searching for the elusive sausage. If I'd been translating it I'd have used "discovery".
And Currywurst itself is an absurdly cross-cultural word, at the same time as being an everyday fast food item in German cities. Curried sausage is just curried sausage.

kesäkuu 18, 2010, 4:56 pm

Thorold's message about the strange French spelling of Ivanhoe brought to mind the French spellings of the author Poe (they write his name "Edgar Allan Poë") and Defoe's tale about "Robinson Crusoë". Both are also spelled with an accent aigu.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 18, 2010, 5:11 pm

On 24:

The diphthong oe (where the 2nd vowel does not create a new syllable) does not come up often in French. The French may have assumed the same was true of English. I suppose the adding of the acute accent is an instance of "taking the English spelling at its word", even though taking it wrongly, i.e. giving it its seemingly implied extra syllable.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 19, 2010, 6:42 am

The French do pronounce the extra syllable - Ee-van-o-ay and Cru-zo-ay, but I've never seen Poë or heard a pronunciation Po-ay. He is Poe in my Petit Robert 2 and on wiki.

kesäkuu 19, 2010, 10:51 am

One that made me laugh myself silly: The heartbreaking work of staggering genius was translated into Croatian as 'Potresno djelo nesigurna genija'--"staggering genius" becoming "insecure genius".

The new generations of translators aren't worth shit. Probably students slaving overnight for a pittance...

kesäkuu 19, 2010, 5:35 pm

to #22:
That must be currywurst somewhere other than in Germany. I've read a thorough description of it, and, while I would never eat the stuff, that description has nothing to do with the real thing 8-)

kesäkuu 19, 2010, 5:56 pm

". . .I've never heard the pronunciation po - ay". . .

I have heard "po-ay" once, but from a speaker of French who was speaking it as a fairly capable learned-language speaker, not a native speaker. I had already seen the French spelling, and he was ust taking the Fr.. use of the acute at face value, I guess.

kesäkuu 19, 2010, 8:41 pm

#27 LolaWalser: Regarding your suggestion that the new generations of translators aren't worth very much: I wonder if that might go some way to explaining why my edition of Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel is "Based on a translation from the French by John Cullen" rather than the more usual "Translated by ......". Do you think the editors needed to do more work on the translation before it could be published?

tammikuu 13, 2011, 3:18 pm

There are two translations of titles of Alejo Carpentier books that have always bothered me:

El siglo de las luces is translated to "Explosion in a Cathedral." Why not "The Age of Englightenment," or even the literal "The Century of Lights?"

Then there's his story El camino de Santiago, which has been translated to "The Highroad of St. James." It's really the translation of Santiago to St. James that bothers me the most. Highroad has a kinda nice ring to it.

I also just finished Sartre's Huis clos, which is known as "No Exit" in English. I would prefer "Closed Doors" if I had to choose a translated title. That one's not so bad, though.

tammikuu 13, 2011, 3:38 pm

On 31:

Youʻre certainly right about El Siglo... / Explosion. . .. I figure that some "translators"
just fabricate what THEY would have made the title, rather than trying to get what the author "really meant".

The Highroad of St. James, on the other hand, is a pretty bland title, but one that seems to me
to be just about a literal translation of the Spanish. A "camino" can certainly be called "a highroad", and, given the wide belief that "Santiago" WAS St. James, " it seems all right to me so to translate it. This is complicated by the fact that there were two Jameses, one of whom, in legend, became a missionary to the Spanish.
This is paralleled by the legends of Andrew going to Scotland and Thomas (and in some accounts
Jesus also) going to India.
On Huis Clos / No Exit, yes, "Closed Doors" is more like what Sartre meant. The translator extends the meaning of that, to imply that there NEVER WAS any way out.

tammikuu 13, 2011, 4:04 pm

@32: You're right, the "Camino de Santiago" is generally referred to in English as the Way of St. James: I guess I always thought, since it was a reference to a specific place (Santiago de Compostela), that it should stay as Santiago in I see why that title shouldn't bother me after all.

tammikuu 13, 2011, 4:44 pm

I think you can both ways on St James vs Santiago. Juan the Pilgrim has made a vow to St. James and is following the road to Santiago. He never gets to Compostela, so in some ways the story relates more to the human aspect than to the place aspect.

tammikuu 14, 2011, 3:51 am

I confirm that Ivanhoé is the right French spelling, as is Robinson Crusoé. But Poe or Defoe definitely have no accents in French. Simply, Defoe is sometimes written as De Foe, just like in English.

Ivanhoé reminds me of a puzzling translation to French of Robin Hood which becomes "Robin des Bois" while the literal translation would be "Robin la Capuche". This is a misunderstanding of "Hood" for "Wood", and I wonder if the problem exists in other languages. Or only in French?

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 14, 2011, 5:17 am

Yes. Other language has the same lost in translation thing going on.

Try this.


上帝 -god
沒什麼 -nothing
了不起 - superior
揭露 - expose
宗教 -religion
中 -in
力量- force

Guess a book.

OK. Not the worst, but still.

tammikuu 14, 2011, 5:24 am

I'd say that when referring to the pilgrim route, St. James is better, a road to Santiago is just any physical road to a geographic place.
So yeah, that's actually a good call from the translator to get it right.

I think Robin of the Woods is used occasionally also in English, even if Hood is more popular name (and it might be an issue of back-translating). No idea why that would become more popular name in French though.

tammikuu 14, 2011, 7:44 am

Not necessarily conclusive evidence, but Portuguese and Greek seem to follow the French example (Robim dos Bosques and Ρομπέν των Δασών, i.e. "of the woods"), whilst all the other language versions of the Wikipedia article I looked at have "Robin Hood".

tammikuu 14, 2011, 2:30 pm

"Guess a book. . ." (From "God nothing
superior etc.") (36)

I donʻt know any Chinese but it sounds, from the
literal translation, like Hitchensʻs
God is Not Great. . . (if youʻre asking for a guess (?) )

"OK Not the worst, but stll." (36)
-- I donʻt get the connection of this with the rest.

tammikuu 17, 2011, 7:58 pm

>39 rolandperkins:

You guessed correctly.

It is not the worst because by the cover of the translated Chinese title, I couldn't guess many of the original titles, so I could not even name the worst translation title.

tammikuu 18, 2011, 4:51 am

On 40:

"You guessed correctly"
". . .I couldnʻt guess many of the original titles..."


Muokkaaja: helmikuu 15, 2011, 2:40 pm

> 24 (and further): The real problem - I think - is that that vowel combination gets pronounced very differently in various languages. As a kid I was convinced that "Ivanhoe" should be pronounced "Ivan Who" - simply because in my native Dutch "oe" pronounces about the same as English "oo". So equally, Edgar Allen Poe was probably related to Winnie de Poeh (Winnie the Pooh).

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 15, 2011, 4:17 pm

42 "Probably related to Winnie de Poeh* (Winnie the Pooh) (42)

Yes, I was wondering once if the Dutch Winnie would be pronounced like the English (Poo, Du. Poeh. Lat., Hwn. Pu). The Latin Winnie ille Pu results from an attempt to render the "the" of the title in Latin, even though Latin has no articles. So it is literally "Winnie, THAT Poo"

I've heard E. A. Poe's name pronounced in French only once, and that was by a good, but not a native, speaker. It was 2-syllable, with the 2nd syllable rhyming with Engl. "Day". 2-syllable, because of the umlaut over the -e, I suppose. There is a classic 19th c. poem by Mallarme that has Poe in the title, so there must be a standard way for litterateurs to pronounce it.

*I put this in brackets -- just curiosity, to see if Touchstones would pick it a Dutch ediltion, although I'm not one of those who gets excited over the sporadic absences of Touchsttones.

helmikuu 15, 2011, 11:15 pm

>42 Nicole_VanK: (Ivanhoe / "Ivan Who")
I suppose that would be a Terrible version of this series.

Then again, I might just have been up too late watching the Scottish Deerhound win Best in Show.

helmikuu 16, 2011, 3:06 am

>42 Nicole_VanK: I never had any trouble pronouncing Ivanhoe, as I learned the word when the Dutch television aired the series with Roger Moore as the protagonist:

The russians transcibe Ivanhoe as Айвенго, which is reasonable (apart from the h-г swap), and Poe as По.