Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boring and icky

In "Start the week" on Radio 4 last night, there was discussion about a modern opera called L'amour de loin, by a Finnish composer but translated into English for this new production, and about Justin Cartwright's new novel. The name of the opera struck me as icky, the plot as boring, and the musical excerpt made me fidget (Henze with harps in the background). Some prince "transcendently" in love with a princess sails across a sea to meet up with her, moaning the while in twelve tones or more (a synthesizer is in there to "provide sheen"). When the prince reaches his destination, he dies before cashing in.

Because Andrew Marr and guests were interrupting each other so much, I got the impression that the translated title was "To Heaven By Water", which I thought fabulously superior to L'amour de loin. Checking my facts to write this post, I discovered that it's the title of Cartwright's novel, a phrase from the Hades episode of Ulysses.

What a pity. But it gives me the idea of posting (later) a rant about the excruciatingly flatfooted titles that Germans dream up when they translate English-language books and films. Take the animated film "Spirited Away", which is here "Chihiros Reise ins Wunderland" (Chihiro's Journey to Wonderland). Admittedly, the English title is too clever to be easily rendered, but the German one doesn't even attempt to be more than a prosaic description.

I can't remember more examples just now - they were so stupid that I forgot them. The general tendency is to things like "Death and Violence", or "The Green Banks of Love" - glaring or gushing phrases you expect to find in a blurb, but not amounting to snappy titles. It seems to me that, as time goes on, titles are just being left in English. "Blade Runner", "Misery" and "L.A. Crash" already ran as themselves, years ago.


AJP CROWN said...

It's the same in Norwegian. It's very irritating when you're trying to rent a movie. Whoever it is who translates movie titles is both evil and clueless as far as I can see. A much-discussed book & film series in our house was "Harry Potter", for which they pointlessly translated all the made-up names into what Norwegians might imagine is English-sounding gobbledegook (i.e. what it was in the first place).

Stuart Clayton said...

On the whole, the German public is kept dumbed-down by the entertainment media with respect to furrin stuff. I suspect that the marketing people who make the ultimate decisions are afraid their wares won't sell unless the book and film titles, and product names, can be recognized and categorized by a child.

Here's an example. Saramago wrote a scary NOVEL with the title Ensaio sobre a Cegueira which I read in Spanish as Ensayo sobre la ciega: "Essay on blindness". Now no German publisher believes you can sell people a novel whose title makes it sound like a medical article. Seeing it in the literature section, people might get confused and be afraid to come back there any more to buy novels. So in German it's Die Stadt der Blinden (The City of the Blind).

Here are a few book titles from the current Spiegel bestseller list. I've listed only translated works, because that's my topic here. I haven't gone too far, because I find things are not as bad as I wanted them to be. My strictures still apply to film titles, though. And anyway, Spiegel is not for the German public, but merely for well-informed sensation-seekers. I never read Spiegel, it's like The Sun for intellectuals.

Simon Beckett
Whispers of the Dead
Leichenblässe (Pale as a corpse)
   [what's wrong with Das Flüstern der Toten?]

Carlos Ruiz Zafón
El juego del Ángel
Das Spiel des Engels (The angel's game)
   [honorable exception]

Alan Bennett
An Uncommon Reader
Die souveräne Leserin (The sovereign reader [female])
   [Pretty clever, honorable exception. I've read the original. It's good, funny Bennett]

Charlotte Roche
Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands)
   [honorable exception. Roche is a very clever woman. She probably did the English version herself]
   Here is a description at Amazon:

With her jaunty dissection of the sex life and the private grooming habits of the novel's 18-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, Charlotte Roche has turned the previously unspeakable into the national conversation in Germany. Since its debut in February, the novel ("Feuchtgebiete," in German) has sold more than 680,000 copies, and is the biggest selling book on Amazon anywhere in the world. The book is a headlong dash through every crevice and byproduct, physical and psychological, of its narrator's body and mind. It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel. Wetlands opens in a hospital room after an intimate shaving accident. It gives a detailed topography of Helen's hemorrhoids, continues into the subject of anal intercourse and only gains momentum from there, eventually reaching avocado pits as objects of female sexual satisfaction and - here is where the debate kicks in - just possibly female empowerment. Clearly the novel has struck a nerve, catching a wave of popular interest in renewing the debate over women's roles and image in society.

AJP CROWN said...

(Charlotte Roche) probably did the English version herself
I'm sure. Her English is equal to her German.

The sovereign reader [female] Pretty clever Clever, but not very Bennett-like, I'd say. Talking of translating film titles, did you hear that when they turned Alan Bennett's play "The Madness of George III" into a film they called it "The Madness of King George", so that the US market wouldn't think it was the second sequel?

Stuart Clayton said...

You're right, "The sovereign reader" would be too flat for Bennett, but I still think Die souveräne Leserin is pretty clever for German.

In today's non-monarchical Germany, souverän in ordinary (elevated) speech has no active association with the historical figure of der Souverän (the Sovereign). As adjective or adverb, souverän just means "very confident(ly)", i.e. having things under control in a superior but non-condescending way. I couldn't think of an equivalent word or expression in English, so my translation "sovereign reader" is pretty misleading. I also couldn't think of a German standing expression like "Common Reader" (itself old-fashioned) where one could play on the adjective (common -> uncommon) and where the noun means "a person who reads" and "a book with a selection of good reads" ["reads": yet another pun in English!]

Stuart Clayton said...

"Common Reader", a selection of reads for the general public, would be the old-fashioned Volkslesebuch, which is not a third-reichy thing per se but might be taken to be one by many people. In any case, it sounds like a book confected by pedagogues to amuse and instruct simple folks with approved content.

Germans are accustomed to be addressed as die Öffentlichkeit (the general public) or das Publikum (audience)[but not with the Pope or a very high muck-a-muck, that's die Audienz]

Stuart Clayton said...

The Spanish title of Saramago's novel was Ensayo sobre la ceguera of course, not "sobre la ciega".

AJP CROWN said...

Yes, you're right that souverän sounds appropriate, then. The thing about Alan Bennett, and I think it's one reason why he's SO popular in England, is that he utilizes his upbringing and the experiences and shibboleths that ANY son of a Leeds tradesman, who had grown up in the '50s, would be able to recreate -- and put double-meanings to, were they as clever and singular as Bennett. That's untranslatable.