Posts by Anna Aslanyan

Working Title: Babylon

Babylon became a hit in the Anglophone world—but only thanks to Bromfield's skill and verve.

Advertisements are the translator’s hell. Only the other day, I struggled with a Russian analogue to “a patient journey to asthma management:” each version sounded either too Western or too Soviet. That fruitless exercise has put me in mind of Victor Pelevin, one of the most popular contemporary Russian authors, whose books are often tributes to his early career in advertising.

A classic example is Generation “П,” originally published in Russian under this funky title in 1999. The П is for P, which is for Pepsi. It traces a copywriter’s journey (sic) to greatness in the formative days of Russian capitalism. Andrew Bromfield’s version, published by Faber and Faber, is called Babylon, referring to the name of the protagonist, Vavilen Tatarsky (his pet name, “Vavan,” is rendered as “Babe” here), which brings up a whole host of Sumerian associations in the book. The book’s US title, Homo Zapiens, is Pelevin’s own invention: a term for a model consumer, it appears in a text communicated by the spirit of Che Guevara by means of an ouija board, where it’s abbreviated to ХЗ, a shortened form of the Russian equivalent of “fuck knows.”


Working Title: The Lost Daughter

When does "lost" mean willful abandonment?

Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been called scrittrice oscura: an “obscure writer” who never makes public appearances and uses a pen name. In 1991, when her debut novel was due to be published, in a letter to her publisher she wrote: “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.”

And in a recent interview, she talked to her editors about her writing practices, the female voice and the origins of her books. While the fourth and final of her Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, published this month, is making its triumphant entrance, let’s return to La figlia oscura  (2006), a precursor to the quartet, which, according to Ferrante, is the book she is “most painfully attached to.” Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s regular translator, has chosen a nonliteral title for it, The Lost Daughter, replacing by “lost” the word that usually means “unclear” or “murky”, all the better to convey the multitude of meanings the original title encapsulates.

The “lost daughter” of the title has many incarnations: as a little girl who wanders away on a beach; as the narrator’s own daughter in a similar situation; as both of her daughters (now in their twenties), living far away and calling only when they need her; as Leda herself, who “didn’t start liking myself until I turned eighteen, when I left my family, my city.” Another interpretation of the title can be found in Nina, the mother of the girl lost on the beach, a beautiful young woman chosen by Leda as a mirror in which to scrutinize her own past life: “Choose for your companion an alien daughter. Look for her, approach her.” READ MORE…

Working Title: Conclusive Evidence

Nabokov was always interested in the multilingual experience, both in writing and speech.

Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning.” There are many ways to interpret this, especially when the artist writes in several languages, as Nabokov famously did, having switched to English in his early forties, but never completely abandoning his native Russian. Did Nabokov really only ever write for himself? The jury may still be out, but this much is clear: his one-man audience was more demanding than most.

Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir covering the first four decades of his life, up to his emigration to the U.S. in 1940, was written in English and initially published in America as Conclusive Evidence. To his British publisher Nabokov suggested a different title, Speak, Mnemosyne, which was rejected on the grounds that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.” Yet another idea was The Anthemion, “but nobody liked it; so we finally settled for Speak, Memory.” Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, makes frequent appearances in all the book’s versions, including the authorial Russian one, produced under the title Другие берега (Other Shores). In his introduction to the Russian edition Nabokov explains his decision to rewrite the book significantly by the drawbacks he noticed when he first embarked on the “mad enterprise” of translating Conclusive Evidence—the drawbacks that would make an exact translation “a caricature of Mnemosyne.”


Working Title: A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

"Titles that involve wordplay often send translators into overdrive."

There is a scene in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot where a class of American students discusses A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke. A know-it-all boy with a penchant for Barthes says he found the book “totally dank and depressive” and “loved it.”

“Suicide is a trope,” he announced. “Especially in German literature. You’ve got The Sorrows of Young Werther. You’ve got Kleist. Hey, I just thought of something.” He held up a finger. “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” He held up another finger. “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. My theory is that Handke felt the weight of all that tradition and this book was his attempt to break free.”

At this point, the teacher reminds him that the original German title, Wunschloses Unglück, has no “sorrow” in it: this “serious and strangely wonderful title,” a play on the phrase wunschlos glücklich (“happier than you could ever wish for” ), could be translated as “extreme unhappiness.”  The student, without batting an eyelid, proceeds to explain what the author wanted to achieve with the book. READ MORE…

Working Title: Pereira Maintains

“A single phrase, used regularly throughout the text, changes it drastically, invoking a sinister atmosphere. Who is Pereira telling his story to?”

“In a special action of the case the plaintiff declares, that he is a hackney coachman.” “The defendant maintains that he accidentally stood naked in front of the window.” These excerpts are taken from courtroom reports dated, respectively, the late 17th and early 21st century. Although the reporting verbs used in these two cases are, technically speaking, interchangeable, “declare” would look more out of place in the second example than “maintain” in the first. Today we usually declare love or bankruptcy, war or independence, profits or goods, but rarely our personal details.

The protagonist of Sostiene Pereira, a 1994 novel by Antonio Tabucchi, declares a great many things in Patrick Creagh’s translation, titled Declares Pereira and first published in 1995 by Harvill, a London-based press with an interest in European literature. When the book was reprinted in the US, the title lost its inversion, becoming Pereira Declares (perhaps in line with the advice given in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, whose authors, Dave King and Renni Browne, think that “‘said he’ fell out of favor sometime during the Taft administration”), and the story, initially billed as A True Account, became A Testimony (and thus closer to the original Italian subtitle Una testimonianza), but the declarations remained in the text. They stayed there until 2010, when the independent British publisher Canongate reissued Creagh’s translation as Pereira Maintains. The only difference between this version and the earlier ones is that “declares” is replaced by “maintains” throughout—a change that, despite being easily made with a find-and-replace tool, produces a profound effect.


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. READ MORE…