The Curmudgeon


Sunday, March 13, 2005

Translate This

I've just got hold of another book by the remarkable Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis. The title of this English translation is The Wager, which is not a translation of the title. A translation of the title, Memorial de Aires, would presumably be Memoir of Aires or Aires' Journal (the subtitle of this version). Another novel by Machado de Assis, whose title is Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, has been translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner. I think it's high time translators, or their publishers, were reacquainted with the fact that they are the window-pane and not the landscape.

Film versions have much to answer for. Because of Sam Peckinpah's film, Willi Heinrich's novel The Willing Flesh was recently issued as Cross of Iron, although the Iron Cross is mentioned barely, if at all, in the book. Michel Tournier's The Erl-King has been transmogrified into The Ogre; this at least has something to do with the contents of the story, but it involves a substantial and unnecessary shift of emphasis, not to mention the rather insulting implication that interested viewers of Volker Schlondorff's film are incapable of finding the source novel should it be available under its own name.

I realise that it is frequently necessary, when adapting a literary work for the screen, to alter the title. Schindler's Ark was obviously much better off as Schindler's List, since the story did indeed feature a list and the Noah reference was purely (shudder) metaphorical. But why was it necessary for Penguins to issue Huysmans' La-Bas, which translates perfectly well as Down There, under the denniswheatleyesque rubric The Damned? What earthly business did Johns Hopkins Press have in reducing Tournier's Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar to The Four Wise Men?

Probably it's all the fault of Jorge Luis Borges, who observed somewhere that no translation can ever be definitive. Though true enough, this pronouncement by one of literature's most modest practitioners has given some secretarial workers ideas above their station. The mere name of Huysmans or Machado on a book's cover is no longer considered sufficient; literature, like everything else, must not merely be sold, but provided with a sell. Especially foreign literature, which nobody reads and must therefore be sold all the harder.

So in a year or two, I suppose, Machado's Dom Casmurro will come out as Old Sourpuss, and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as The St Petersburg Axe Murders. Part two of Faust will have to be repackaged as Faust II: The Sequel, and no doubt those responsible for the marketing of A la recherche du temps perdu will have some serious thinking to do. Would Memories of a French Cake-Sucker be appropriate to the target purchasing group?


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