Lost in Translation

February 24, 2016 | 2 comments


I’m one of those people who will decide to read a book solely based on the title (or cover). I also tend to read a lot of books that have been translated from from Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic to English (since finding the original editions are a bit tricky when living abroad). One thing that always fascinates me is how the titles of the books evolve through the translated editions.

Quite often, titles are translated word by word. Sometimes they are slightly adjusted when, presumably, the direct translation would not quite work as intended. There are other times when a direct translation would have been much better (in my opinion at least) than the alternative title.

The example I always return to (because it still annoys me) is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Only the title of the second book (The Girl Who Played With Fire) is directly translated. The first and third book should have been called ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and ‘The Air Castle That Exploded’. I do like that in English, all three titles start with “The Girl Who” (because, really, it is all about Lisbeth) but there is a poetic symbolism to the original titles that has been lost in translation.

Another series where all the titles were changed is Kristina Ohlsson’s crime series about Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht. Askungar (‘Cinderellas’) became Unwanted, Tusenskönor (‘Daisies’) became Silenced, Änglavakter (‘Guardian Angels’) became The Disappeared, Paradisoffer (‘Paradise Sacrifice’) became Hostage, and Davidsstjärnor (‘Stars of David’) became The Chosen. The new titles are not necessarily bad, but I don’t think they are big improvements from the direct translation either.

In contrast, many of the new titles of Mari Jungstedt’s crime novels about Detective Anders Knutas works much better than the direct translation. Some examples are Den du inte ser (‘The One You Don’t See’) which became Unseen and I denna stilla natt (‘In This Still Night’) which became Unspoken. I love the Swedish titles, but they don’t quite sound as good when translated word by word.

One recent example of a title who changed for the worse is Jonas Jonasson’s Analfabeten som kunde räkna (‘The Illiterate Who Could Count’) which became The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

It’s no secret that I’m quite fond of series where the titles are connected. I like order and patterns. I was extremely relieved when I realized that the titles of Mons Kallentoft’s series about Detective Malin Fors didn’t stray too far from the originals. Midvinterblod (‘Midwinter Blood’) became Midwinter Blood, Sommardöden (’The Summer Death’) became Summer Death, Höstoffer (‘Autumn Sacrifice’) became Autumn Killing, and Vårlik (’Spring Corpse’) became Spring Remains.

I pretty much always check the original title of any Nordic book I read. The Norweigan book Det henger en engel alene i skogen (‘There is an Angel Hanging Alone in the Woods’) by Samuel Bjørk was translated to I’m Traveling Alone. The Danish Kvinden i buret (‘The Woman in the Cage’) by Jussi Adler-Olsen was translated to The Keeper of Lost Causes, which although having nothing to do with the original title, is a very fitting title for the first book in this series about a police detective who investigates cold cases.

It’s not just when translated to English that titles are lost. The most recent example I came across is Arnaldur Indriðason’s Furðustrandir, which roughly means ‘surprising coast’. The English title is Strange Shores, but in Swedish, it became Den kalla elden (‘The Cold Fire’). Another example is Helgonet (‘The Saint’) by Carin Gerhardsen which in Danish became Død mands hand (‘Dead Man’s Hand’).

The same is true with English titles translated to Swedish. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read a book translated to Swedish and when seen the original title wondered why the title was changed to that. One example is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. I really like the original titles Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn (although in this case the titles where better than the books themselves). In Swedish, the titles became Om jag kunde drömma (‘If I Could Dream’), När jag hör din röst (‘When I Hear Your Voice’), Ljudet av ditt hjärta (‘The Sound of Your Heart’), and Så länge vi båda andas (‘As Long as We Both are Breathing’). None of them are bad titles, but I preferred the originals.

Are you as obsessed with book titles as I am? What’s the worst title translation you’ve come across? Or the best?

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