When an author pens a novel, every word, cover to cover, is carefully selected and crafted into a story designed to capture and express sentiments grand and minute. Those attitudes and ideas are often inexorably intertwined with the author’s culture and, especially, the language. For translators, it’s a daunting challenge to capture the essence of a complex novel while changing its underlying form—the language of that particular work—and occasionally, things get lost or confused in translation.
1. The Great Gatsby // “A Man Without Scruples” (Swedish)
It’s fair to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s title character is, at some level, unscrupulous in nature, what with his Meyer Wolfsheim association and his dishonesty regarding his status as an “Oxford Man”—withholding the truth is as good as a lie, Jay, and don’t try pretending otherwise. Gatsby’s less-than-forthcoming personality was the sentiment the first translators sought to capture in titling Fitzgerald’s work “En Man Utan Skrupler,” or “A Man Without Scruples.”
2. Brave New World // “The Best of All Worlds” (French)
Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopian work pulls its name from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the title gets its power from its ironic use by lead character John the Savage. Translators face something of a quandary with the title and John’s use of it, as irony and sarcasm are not always easily transferred from one language to the next. As a result, translated versions of “Brave New World” often adopt similar expressions that will be more familiar to the native ear.
Most notably, the French edition runs with the moniker “Le Mielluer des Mondes" (“The Best of All Worlds”), a reference to a line from Gottfried Leibniz’s 1710 work “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil.” Leibniz’s line expressed his philosophical belief that of all the possible worlds, the one we inhabit must be the best. The sentiment is noble but also ripe for ironic usage. The first to take advantage of this was actually Voltaire, who lampooned Leibniz’s notion in his 1759 work “Candide, Ou l’Optimisme.” The expression’s history made it an excellent fit for use as a translated title for Huxley’s masterpiece, too.
3. The Grapes of Wrath // “The Angry Raisins” (Japanese)
We’re bending the rules a bit here, as there’s no definitive proof that John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic ever actually ran in Japan with the “The Angry Raisins” title. But there is a good story behind it. According to a 1996 New York Times article:
Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's widow, can spot her husband's name on the spine of a book in many languages, including Russian and Greek. Once she was in Yokohama and, at sea with Japanese, she asked a book-store owner if he had any books by her favorite author. He thought for a moment, then said, yes, he had "The Angry Raisins."
Hilarious and remarkably believable as the translation might be, there’s a serious lack of evidence that The Grapes of Wrath ever actually bore that title. Most Japanese translations of the novel go by Ikari no Budou, or “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boring!
4. The Hobbit // “The Hompen" (Swedish)
J.R.R. Tolkien put a lot of time and attention into naming the many characters and places that made up Middle Earth, and so he was horrified to find out the ways early translators of his novels were butchering his epics. Among the first to catch Tolkien’s ire were Tore Zetterholm and Åke Ohlmarks, who translated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into Swedish respectively, without regard for Tolkien's wishes. Not only did they mysteriously change the name of The Hobbit title species, but the main character was renamed Bimbo Backlin, Rivendell became Waterdale and Esgaroth was “Snigelov,” or “Snail leavings.” The Swedes weren't alone in annoying Tolkien with his translation choices, so the writer published Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings to help guide future translators.
5. The Tale of Despereaux // “The Tale of Despereaux: What is the Story of Mouse, Princess, Little Soups and Thread Spools” (Croatian)
According to the American Library Association, this mouthful is the Croatian translation of the title of Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal winner. Croatian translators were’t the only ones to get a little wordy—the Spanish translation goes by “Despereaux: es la historia de un ráton, una princesa, un cucharada de sopa y un carrete de hilo,” or “Despereaux: The story of a mouse, a princess, a spoonful of soup and a spool of thread.”
6. Bridge to Terabithia // “Bridge to the Afterlife” (Hungarian)
According to Sparknotes, “Terabithia is a symbol of idealized childhood, of a perfect world in which children can rule supreme without the heavy responsibilities of adulthood.” Hungarian translators decided to take things in a different direction, providing something of a spoiler in the process—and they weren't alone in picking a strange title for what you’d think would be a straight-forward translation: Norwegian ("Alone on the Other Side"), German ("The Bridge to the Other Country") and French ("The Kingdom of the River") translators nixed Terabithia from their titles, too.
7. Animal Farm // “Animals Everywhere!” (French)
For one French edition of George Orwell’s 1945 novel, translators used "Les Animaux Partout!" or "Animals Everywhere." But Orwell himself suggested another title to translator Yvonne Davet: “Union des Republiques Socialistes Animales.” He advocated shortening the title to the acronym URSA, which translates to “Bear” in French.
8. Catch-22 // “Paragraph 22” (Italian)
Italian translators chose "Paragraph 22" as the title of their translation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 satirical novel. To be fair to the Italians, the book has some rocky literal translations in other languages, too. The Polish edition goes by “Paragraf 22,” or “Section 22,” and the Spanish version bears the name “Trampa 22” or “Trap 22.”
9. Catcher in the Rye // “Over the Abyss in Rye” (Russian)
J.D. Salinger’s most popular novel was also a huge smash in Russia thanks to a translation by Rita Rait-Kovaleva. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union approved the novel for translation, hoping it would shine a light on the indecency of American capitalism. Soviet readers tended to focus more on the themes of rebelling against a conformist society, though. As Reed Johnson wrote for The New Yorker, “Who knew phony better than these daily consumers of official Soviet language?” In 2008, another translated version—this one by Max Nemstov—was released, this one with the more literal title “Catcher on a Grain Field.” Still, many Russians complained that Nemstov mistranslated the original title of “Over the Abyss in Rye.”