Having spent the past five years thinking a lot about translation and how important it is, I’ve been delighted to have a chance to observe the process from a different angle over the past twelve months. My novel Beside Myself has received book deals in around nine language territories, which means that I have had the privilege of seeing my writing translated into other tongues.
This has been a strange experience. As I don’t speak Thai, Polish, Chinese or Italian (some of the languages in which my work now exists), I have no way of knowing how the respective translators have rendered my story. I have had to trust them and my publishers to produce a fair representation of my original work, one that I hope will convey the kernel and spirit of the narrative to readers in their respective language markets.
From my own research and experience with reading translations, I am aware that this might involve a degree of alteration or the inclusion of extra bits of explanation in order to convey concepts that may not be familiar to people in other parts of the world.
As such, the process has brought home to me once more the generosity and fragility of translation – that it is essentially an exercise that relies on strangers reading your work with sympathetic and discerning eyes.
However, although I can’t read the foreign-language versions of my novel (apart from the French – of which more soon!), I have been able to consider the different book jackets and titles that publishers have chosen to give my work. This has been an education in the way that different book markets operate and so I am sharing a selection below. Above, from left to right, are the UK hardback, UK paperback, US hardback and US paperback covers for comparison.
(For those who don’t know, the novel centres around a pair of identical twins who swap places in a game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to change back.)
This is the cover of the Spanish edition. I like the sepia feel of the picture, which harks back to my central characters’ childhoods in the 1980s.
The literal translation of the title is ‘Stolen life’. This is interesting as it makes a more definitive statement about who is to blame for what happens in the novel than the original title. Spanish readers will have the sense that someone has done something wrong before they even begin the first page.
Moja siostra …czy ja?
The Polish cover is intriguing. We’re in thriller territory here. The mirror gets across the idea of twinship and doubleness. However there is a much darker feel to everything, as though the beautiful woman in the reflection is about to come to serious harm.
The title (‘My sister… or me?’) is much more direct than the English or Spanish versions. In Poland, readers know that this is a story about choosing between sisters as soon as they glimpse the spine of the book.
The Taiwanese edition seems like a halfway house between the two previous versions. We have the slightly retro-feeling little girls, but the fragmenting of the picture lends a dark feel as though everything is about to fall apart.
The Taiwanese publisher has kept the English title on the cover (apparently this is common practice in this part of the world), but I’m not sure whether the Chinese characters are a literal translation of it or a different title – can anyone help me out?
The Person Who Stole My Name
The Chinese cover is the most unusual of the ones I have seen. In fact, when I was first sent it, I was so intrigued that I asked my agent to find out what the thinking behind it was (in case you were wondering, there aren’t any flamingos in the novel).
The answer came back that the separation of the species – the little girl and the birds – was intended to indicate loneliness. This is a central theme in the novel, so that makes sense to me.
As with the Spanish title, Chinese readers of ‘The person who stole my name’ will have the sense that a wrong has been done to someone before they turn to the first page.
À sa place
The French cover also prompted a question, as to my British eyes it seemed to have slightly erotic overtones (again, not a strong feature of the book). My French editor, however, assures me that this is not the case in the French market.
I really like the ambiguity of the title (‘In her place’), which leaves open the question of which twin’s identity is under threat.
As I can read French (very slowly and with a big dictionary), I will be able to see how the story has been carried over into this new language. I’m planning to get stuck in as soon as I finish editing my next novel.
I’ll let you know how I get on…
What an interesting variety of covers and titles! The English language ones alone show quite a variation, but when you also add the subtle changes in meaning in the translated ones… Thank you for sharing with us.
Thank you so much for this. As a translator and teacher of translation, I am always looking for more reactions from authors on their experience. Kathryn
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Well done! This must be really exciting. And such an insight into marketing. A thought did strike me: could you get some of your many readers around the world to translate, say, a key passage back into English to see what it looked like? I realise that professional translation is an art in itself so it might not work.
Thanks Chris – a very interesting idea! If anyone is interested in volunteering I’d be fascinated to see the results!
I have to say I really like the stickfigure drawing of the first cover. It’s rather unsettling. The Taiwanese title translates as “I am not myself” with the second part of the sentence mirrored (the left column). You can actually see that for yourself : the two characters at the top are the same: 我, meaning “I” and the “my” in “myself” respectively.
Brilliant. Thanks so much. Yes, I like the stick figures too. The designer told me he came up with the idea on a bus ride home from work one evening in London when the windows were all steamed up.
Wonderful post and congratulations on the various book deals! For the Taiwanese version, the Chinese title says quite literally “I am not myself”. Not sure if it follows your original intention. The interesting thing is that the first word 我 on the right hand column means “I” while the first word on the left hand column is the mirror image of 我 – quite matching the picture. But I am intrigued why the 2 Chinese versions – Taiwan and China – would give such a different feel and title to your book. Interpretations are certainly quite different.
Brilliant. Thank you. Yes, it is interesting. I suppose a lot depends on the publisher and where they see the book fitting in the market.
You could also try reading the English version and the French version at the same time. That’s what I’m doing with Harry Potter in Spanish – I refer to the English version when I don’t understand something in Spanish.
Great idea – thanks Marialena!
What an interesting post. A topic to which I’d never given any thought. As a writer, it highlights for me the vital importance of choosing the correct title. And as for the jacket design – well! what a world of cultural difference is revealed. Especially the flamingoes. BTW: I read your novel and love4d it; its now doing the rounds of our Milnerton Library Book Club.
That’s lovely to know. Thanks Alison!
As for the Polish edition, I would have never buy your book, if I didn’t know who you are. Unfortunately, Amber is well-known for their awful covers and poor translation. Maybe I should buy also the English edition to compare them?
And the topic is really intriguing. When I can, I try to read books written in English, instead of the Polish translations. There is always something missing. It’s also the main reason why I learn languages. I want to be able to read books from various countries.
Interesting. Thanks Barbara. It would certainly be intriguing to hear your thoughts if you do decide to read both editions!