Reinterpreting Titles: When Books Cross the Sea

By Reann Lin

I love languages, and as a person from Chinese diaspora I’m aware that there is something fascinating about my own language—how it can encapsulate so much more than English, but with fewer characters. So what about English-to-Chinese translations—especially in book titles, which convey the whole story at a glance?

Naomi Sy explores this in an essay on YouTube channel Accented Cinema, a film-oriented channel focusing on Asian media. In my own dive into the world of translated book titles, I’ve discovered that the most common reason for a book title change during translation is because the original title doesn’t transfer well to the target language. This is often the case with titles that include the names of characters. While it’s possible to transliterate the name, where the name is written out in the closest possible phonetic way in the target language, the downside is that the average reader would not be able to tell what the book will be about based on the title alone, making the novel less attractive to buyers. So, publishers opt for the next best option and solve both problems in one go, a technique Accented Cinema’s video calls ‘reinterpretation’.

From left to right: cover images for Moby Dick (Buxiu Classics, 2019 edition) and Oliver Twist (Jiangsu Phoenix Literature Publishing House, 2019 edition).

A simple explanation for this is when a book receives a new title derived from the plot. One of the more straightforward examples is Moby Dick. Published in 1852, it tells the story of a sailor’s revenge against an albino sperm whale named Moby Dick. This book was sold in Chinese-speaking markets as simply The Tale of the White Whale. Pretty self-explanatory.

A slightly broader example would be Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a story about an orphan thrown into London in the mid-19th century, depicting the cruel reality of child labour and crime at the time. This title became The Foggy City Orphan and is a more scenic interpretation. In a single title, it captures both the setting and the main character’s plight, by referencing London in the time of the Industrial Revolution, a fog-prone city covered in heavy fog that earned itself the nickname ‘The City of Fog’.

Occasionally, this type of marketing can go in directions less desirable to the author. Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was originally translated as The Three Swordsmen, in an attempt to lure in Chinese readers who liked martial arts books. While the titular musketeers did wield swords, the author requested that the translation be fixed in future reprints to better reflect the true meaning of the occupation. You know, men who carried muskets.

Cover image for Gone with the Wind (Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House, 2019 collector’s edition)

The Chinese language allows for more poetic, artistic reinterpretations of the title as well. Most famously, the Chinese version of Gone with the Wind is ‘飄’, a singular character that means ‘to be adrift’.

All of the above examples have not strayed too far from the original. They are different, yes, but after looking at the translated title, I would assume most of us could see the connection. Sy’s video, however, mentions a type of translation she calls a poetic translation; when the title incorporates the cultural context of the market it will be entering.

In translation studies, this would be quite close to the adaptation technique, also known as cultural substitution—a technique that Mildred Larson defined in 1998 as domesticating a text by replacing the foreign lexical item that loan words with modifications cannot.

Most interestingly, Larson states that this technique is best used to convey an ‘effect’, rather than concrete facts—which is almost exactly what poetic translations do.

Cover image for Rebecca (Wen Hui Publishing, 2019 edition)

Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca tells the story of an unnamed narrator who marries a wealthy widower and moves into his mansion. She is consistently compared to the former lady of the house, the titular Rebecca. Though dead, she continues to control the mansion through the residents of the house and the nearby townspeople, who revere her.

Both the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation received the same name in China: The Butterfly Dream. It’s a reference to a classic story from Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text that was a collection of parables and fables which reflected the ideal Taoist. One of the most famous passages is titled Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly, and tells the strange tale of Zhuangzi, who has a dream in which he was a carefree butterfly who didn’t know that he was a man. He wakes up and begins to wonder if he had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi’s famous story is discussed thoroughly among philosophers, and there are many interpretations of what the butterfly dream means—but most will agree it touches on the illusory dichotomy between reality and dreams.

In the context of the narrative, Rebecca is the butterfly dream—is she dead? Is she alive? Does it even matter? The oppressive suspense that the author creates forces the narrator to feel the same confusion Zhuangzi did as the mystery continues to take its twists and turns.

I think the way translators localise titles is fascinating—what consideration goes into whether a book should stay as true to the title as possible, and what prompts some translations to cater to their market more culturally?

Feel free to share any interesting book title translations—in any language—in the comments below!

Reann Lin is a Master of Publishing and Communications student in her final year at the University of Melbourne. Reann’s interests lie in fandom studies, translation, and language localisation! If she’s not reading a book, she’ll be nose-deep in some niche narrative-driven game.

Leave a Reply