Untranslatable Words: What’s in a Title?

By Jeannette Ringold

During the February 14, 2006 NPR broadcast of “All Things Considered,” host Michele Norris interviewed the Dutch novelist Artur Japin about his latest book Een Schitterend Gebrek, which had just been translated into English as In Lucia’s Eyes. In an otherwise interesting interview that explored the difficulties of translating the title, no mention was made of the translator. We try here to fill in some of the holes.

Artur Japin found the story as a brief anecdote in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova. It mentions Casanova’s first love, Lucia, who disappeared without warning. Mr. Japin became fascinated by the elusive Lucia, and in his novel he imagines what may have happened. Young Casanova was very hurt and wondered why he was abandoned. It turns out that Lucia was horribly disfigured by smallpox, resolved that she did not want Casanova’s pity, and decided to flee. In the novel Casanova finds her again many years later when she is a successful prostitute in Amsterdam. She always wears a veil which makes her mysterious and attractive to her customers and also hides her disfigured face.

Why the English title, In Lucia’s Eyes? Although the NPR interview made no pretense to be primarily about linguistic matters, it was nonetheless disappointing that neither the interviewer nor the author mentioned the translator, or otherwise asked how this book was “magically” transformed from Dutch into English. This is doubly regrettable since Mr. Japin was fortunate to have David Colmer, an excellent Dutch-English translator who is an author in his own right, do the translation. David Colmer’s preference for the title was A Great Imperfection.

The following excerpt from the dialogue between Ms. Norris and the author points out some problems in finding a good title in another language and culture:

Norris: I understand that the translation was particularly challenging because there is a Dutch word for deformity.*

Japin: Yes.

Norris: That lends a certain weight and surprise to Lucia’s character, but I understood there is no equivalent for that.

Japin: No, we couldn’t find, it mainly has to do with the title. I would have wanted it to be in the title.

Norris: What was the Dutch title?

Japin: Oh well … it sounds horrible. In Dutch it is Schitterend gebrek, which is like “a beautiful defect,” almost.

To illustrate the difficulty of translating this title, it is instructive to look at the various meanings of the noun “gebrek.” The standard Van Dale dictionary gives five different meanings of the word, including lack, want, shortage; hardship, deprivation; ailment, infirmity; and shortcoming, weakness.

The adjective “schitterend: brilliant, splendid, magnificent” is more straightforward, and “great” is an excellent translation.

In an email to me, David Colmer detailed some of the problems he encountered in finding a suitable title for the book. His experience is not unusual, as finding a title for a book can often be an excruciating experience. One difficulty was that numerous people were involved. In promotional material the book was first called A Splendid Flaw. The translator thought that was terrible, and fortunately everyone else thought so too. His suggestion of A Great Imperfection is what the section of the book called “Een schitterend gebrek” is still called in the translation. But the publishers rejected that for the title. David Colmer then offered “suggestion after suggestion” until they finally liked one: In Lucia’s Eyes. He regrets not keeping his list of suggestions!

My own experience in translating the Dutch novel Twee koffers vol by Carl Friedman is somewhat parallel to David Colmer’s. “Twee koffers vol” translates literally as “Two suitcases full”—too much like “two bags full” from the children’s rhyme. And the word “suitcase” is not appealing in a title. The suitcases in the novel were filled with precious belongings and were hidden from the Nazis during World War II, and one of the main characters is trying to find them again after the war. That’s why I felt that the title of the movie that was made of the book—Left Luggage—was also inappropriate, since luggage suggests travel. The author and the publisher agreed with me, and we all started compiling lists of titles; a few memorable ones were First Love and Einstein and Moles in the Violin. In the end it was the author who came up with the suggestion that pleased everyone, The Shovel and the Loom, where the shovel represents digging for the past and the loom represents the attempt to cover the past and go on with life.

Obviously, there are other considerations besides linguistic ones when seeking the appropriate title for a book. Publishers are concerned with titles that will sell, living authors have their preferences, editors have their concerns, and the translator has his or her own ideas and is often asked to translate and evaluate the various possibilities. At least there’s that!

* Editor’s note: In the original transcript, the word “no” was not included in this sentence. The author believes this to be in error.