Even a brief survey of how the titles of great works of world literature have been translated demonstrates the difficulties of rendering literary meaning in different languages, languages that may lack precise equivalents or that may have only words with shorn or different connotations. The frustrations, as well as the occasional creative brilliance, of translators are rarely appreciated by the reader, trapped as we are within the matrix of our own language(s). The following examples are a miniature glass menagerie of titles, each one a fragile imitation of the original, some of which bear up under examination and some of which fall apart under scrutiny. (By the by, the Tennessee Williams play is translated literally, though less evocatively, in Italian as Lo zoo di vetro, and more exactly in French and in German as La Ménagerie de verre and Die Glasmenagerie.)
Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il piacere is typically rendered in English as The Child of Pleasure, imitating the French translator's decision to render the Italian as L'enfant de volupté. The original title presents particular challenges for the English translator. A literal translation would be The Pleasure, which sounds awkward. The article is not really necessary, but to call the novel Pleasure is to lose much of the pregnant meanings of the original. "Piacere" in Italian is a word rich with diverse meanings and connotations - within its meaning are encompassed the expected definition of physical gratification, as well as intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment, the second definition being less salient in English. But the word in Italian can also mean a personal aesthetic, a free choice (a concept essential to the novel), and it also has a strong presence as an expression of courtesy, a favor, a rendered service, or an act of kindness. When one hears the word "pleasure" in English, it fails to evoke so many layered meanings and brings to mind almost solely the idea of the physical, while the title ought to hold tension between the physical and aesthetic, or even spiritual, connotations of the word. I question why the French translator did not translate the title exactly, as Le plaisir, a choice that would have retained the essential connotations of the Italian, but I understand why the English translator was moved to use a different title. Unfortunately, The Child of Pleasure fails to recoup the meanings of the original title, bringing to mind the idea of a bastard, product of an illicit union, rather than what it might mean in the context of the novel, that is, a protagonist in thrall to pleasure in all its diverse meanings.
Another case is Il Gattopardo (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) universally rendered in English as The Leopard. A "gattopardo" is not a leopard; it's a serval, a fairly small African species of cat native to the areas around the Sahara. In this case, the translator faced a significant dilemma. A serval is not an animal familiar to many English speakers (in fact, the word is not in the dictionary of most word processing programs) and the word has few, if any, connotations in English, even for an erudite reader. The title references the family crest of the aristocratic Salina family, based on the author's own forbears, in which is a stamped a serval. By changing the title in English, the translator was able to a certain extent to recover some of the intrinsic connotations of the original title, calling to mind a noble, fierce, graceful, beautifully furred feline. Though the translation is technically incorrect, it's also a particularly fine example of transferring deeper meaning to a language that lacks it in the technical translation.
Italo Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno has a multi-faceted significance in its title that cannot be rendered directly in English. The translator must make a choice between a number of versions: Zeno's Conscience or Zeno's Consciousness, or even Zeno's Awareness or Zeno's Sensibleness. The novel, one of the earliest to trace in complex detail the process of Freudian analysis, plays on these diverse meanings, and is written in the form of a diary expressly assigned by the analyst as a means of understanding the protagonist's psychological disorder. As such, the ambiguous title holds moral, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual connotations at once. In English, the translator must choose which connotations are more important and thus make a decided interpretation, in some ways, defining the novel in a way that is not demanded in Italian. The book, however, is usually rendered as The Confessions of Zeno, a way to avoid the problem of the word "coscienza," at the cost of a title of pregnant meaning.
And on and on, there are so many more examples. Alberto Moravia's Gli indifferenti ("the indifferent ones") becomes A Time of Indifference, Giovanni Verga's I Malavoglia ("the Malavoglia family," - "malavoglia" means "ill-will") becomes The House by the Medlar Tree, Dacia Maraini's La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa ("the long of life of Marianna Ucrìa") becomes The Silent Duchess. Marcel Proust's masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu, has been translated alternately as In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. The latter is a quotation of a Shakespeare sonnet, while the former is a literal rendering of the French. What is known as The Holy Sinner (Thomas Mann) in English is Der Erwählte in German, which means "the chosen one," while The Black Swan in English is Die Betrogene in German, which is "the deceived one." In these last cases, however, I am only aware of these changes because I read critical work on these novels in an effort to understand them better. Since my German is poor at best, I have no choice but to rely on the translator. And beyond English, Italian, French, and to a far lesser extent, German, I must wholly rely on the translator, assuming that she has given the sense of the work as far as possible in a language that I do speak. Though some of the above examples are better translated than others, it's evident, merely from examining a few titles, that translation is a true art form, a deeply complex act of both interpretation and creation. It is impossible to appreciate the full, complex meanings of an original literary work unless one reads it in the original language; however, a good translation will render, not exactly, but with equal richness, the complexities of the work and thus become a new work of art in and of itself.
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