Working Title: The Importance of Being Titled

A new column on titling things in translation

“What do I call it though?” My friend was quick with her response: “What about Déjà Vu?” “Yeah, that would make a great title,” I sighed, “but it’s already been used for an Italian edition. That would be plagiarism.” The book we were trying to christen was Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. Having translated the novel into Russian on spec, I had just heard from Ad Marginem, a Moscow-based publisher: they liked it and wanted to publish it; I went over the text and was happy with it; the only thing missing was a decent title. “Остаток”, the Russian word for “remainder”, wouldn’t do: although it captured the main meaning—what remains, is left over or still to come—it sounded feebler than the original, didn’t have the same ring to it.

When you are about to start translating a piece of writing, even a straightforward one, like a bus timetable, you may be excused for not having a working title in mind, but when you get to the end you are reasonably expected to have come up with some idea. You should know by then what the original title is meant to reflect: the contents of the book, the zeitgeist, practicalities of publishing, the author’s stance or something else. As a translator, you should also realise that your task is not to translate the title into a different language, but into a different culture that, apart from its linguistic aspect, has many other dimensions. This applies not just to the title, of course, but also to the entire work, be it an avant-garde novel or a pudding recipe, a love poem or a price list.

Are titles especially important then? Can writers and translators do without them, following the example of artists, who often label their works with the enigmatic “Untitled”? Does the title of a book influence the reader’s perception of it as a whole? Are principles of literary translation linked to decisions involved in choosing a new title? This column, which will appear here regularly under the artless “Working Title”, is my attempt to answer these questions. My take on titles has always been personal: books are like friends, after all, and while it’s true that you don’t choose friends for their names, once you get to know someone you don’t think of them as “that one over there, in a checked shirt”, just as you don’t refer to a book you keep rereading as “the one about a bloke who turns into a bug”.

You are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and yet a title does play a role in the fate of the book it introduces. Unless the author picks a title out of a hat, their choice is intended to precondition the reader in a certain way. Faced with a title that works on home soil, translators want their own versions to work too – but in what sense? What are they after: an ad slogan, a newspaper headline or an unpretentious word that speaks volumes without being catchy? Are they happy to act as the author’s amanuensis, or do they have their own agenda? If the latter, how much of a footprint are they willing to leave on the text?

In an introduction to his translation of The Symposium, Christopher Gill says that Plato’s original title “can be translated, rather inadequately, as ‘drinks-party’”. The translators of Plato had no choice but improvise – a situation that arises whenever you have a title with several degrees of freedom. It’s one thing to translate 1984, quite another to find an alliterative equivalent to Ada, or Ardor. And where there’s wordplay there’s a way: Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück, a reversal of “happier than one could ever wish to be”, was interpreted by Ralph Manheim as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.

Sometimes titles get simplified: Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Everyone Dies for Himself Alone) was sharpened down to Alone in Berlin by Michael Hoffmann. Often they get embellished: the title of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical series, Min kamp (My Struggle), has been moved out of sight to form the subtitle to Don Bartlett’s less ominous versions, the latest of which is Dancing in the Dark. Translators can choose to leave a title slightly—or even completely—foreign: the Anglophone reader had to put up with Les Misérables until recently, when Christine Donougher revealed that it actually means The Wretched. Another way of dealing with a title is to domesticate it: Caroline Hillier rendered Les boulevards de ceinture by Patrick Modiano as Ring Roads. And then there is pure genius: Anthony Burgess, who loved wordplay, gave his punny version of Alexander Griboyedov’s comedy Горе от ума, usually translated as Woe From Wit, a title that killed several birds with one stone: The Importance of Being Stupid.

The spectrum of the titles under which Remainder has been published in different countries can serve as a synopsis of the novel. The Italian translation sets the tone: the novel starts with the protagonist having a déjà vu moment and becoming obsessed with a single idea: to recreate a place where he was real “without first understanding how to try to be” – to re-enact, over and over, seemingly meaningless events in order to regain the lost sense of authenticity. The French version, Et ce sont les chats qui tombèrent (The Cats It Was That Fell), designed to sound like a line of verse, describes a predicament the hero encounters in his re-enactments of the half-remembered experience. The German edition, titled 8½ Millionen, refers to the sum he is paid as a compensation after an accident – the money that allows him to put the idea into practice. While the eight is “perfect, neat: a curved figure infinitely turning back into itself”, the half represents the remainder in question, messy leftovers, the surplus matter that always gets in the way of one’s quest for perfection. Some of the translated titles—Residuos, Remanescente, Απομεινάρια—follow the original; the Dutch version, Dat wat overblijft (That Which Remains) does it in a clever way: a reference to a pop song, it echoes History Repeating, the Propellerheads hit that crops up in the novel’s passages concerned with the nonlinear nature of time. If McCarthy’s title is hard to translate without losing the range of connotations it encapsulates, the translators make up for it in their inventiveness.

The concept of re-enactment, central to Remainder, is also key to the practice of translation: what translators do, painstakingly trying to put the right words in the right order, is re-enact the process that has led to the creation of the original. “I’d gone to these extraordinary lengths in order to be real,” says the protagonist. “The realness I was after wasn’t something you could just ‘do’ once and then have ‘got’: it was a state, a mode”. That was how I felt when translating Remainder. Back to the title, I spent a long time thinking about it before eventually settling on Когда я был настоящим (When I Was Real). As far as titles go, it’s not bad, although compared to the original it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.


Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for a number of publications, including 3:AM, the Independent, the LRB and the TLS—mainly about literature and arts. Her translations from Russian include Post-Post Soviet? Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade, a collection of essays edited by Ekaterina Degot (University of Chicago Press, 2013).