Top 5 Loose Title Translations

If you’re familiar with another language, you know the complexity of approaching loose translations. There’s a constant fight in the translation world as to what’s more appropriate: a direct translation, or a loose translation that captures the spirit of the original. “The translator is a traitor,” the Italians say. Or take this statement from a French writer: “Translations are like women. If they are beautiful, they are not faithful; if they are faithful, they are not beautiful.”


When I lived in Japan, I was always entertained and flabbergasted going to the video store. This was not because of the wide range of bizarre anime, but because of the American movies. Over and over again, the movie would have a new name, rather than a direct translation. Napoleon Dynamite (starring Jon Heder)was Bus Boy; Equilibrium (starring Christian Bale) was Revolution. There’s a similar trend in book titles. Here are my Top 5:

5. Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English instead of the direct translation Notre Dame of Paris, this one isn’t too much of a stretch. The English version seems to me as if it’s trying to capitalize on the unusual aspect of the book, while the French title seems to speak more to Hugo’s lovingly woven setting.

4. A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust

Initially known as Remembrance of Things Past in English instead of the direct translation In Search of Lost Time, this first loose translation was actually taken from a Shakespeare sonnet by the translator:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

3. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This work is known by the title Fiesta in Spanish and in the UK edition. When Hemingway first started the novel, days after attending the running of the bulls in Pamplona, his working title was Fiesta. He then changed it to The Lost Generation before settling on The Sun Also Rises.


2. Män som hatar kvinnor  by Stieg Larsson

Known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in English instead of the direct translation Men Who Hate Women, I think that the original title better captures the purpose of the author. The work was meant partially as an exorcism for him, haunted by a gang rape he had witnessed in his youth and failed to stop.

1. Het Achterhuis by Anne Frank

Known simply as The Diary of a Young Girl in English instead of the direct translation The House Behind, I didn’t run across the original title of this book until selling first edition copies of it. The title, left up to Anne’s father Otto, refers to the secret annex where they lived in hiding while Anne wrote the diary. Both titles are powerful in their own ways, so I’m not sure which I would place as the better.


Five entries, four languages. What are some of your favorite false titles? Let’s see how many languages we can dip into.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    A lot to think about. I actually like The House Behind as a title for The Diary of a Young Girl. I actually just think about it as The Diary of Anne Frank.

    I don’t think that Men Who Hate Women would have had as good of a reception here in the US. A good marketing decision was made by someone.

    I have another Japanese one for you, although I am not sure if the book in Japan has the same title. I really loved the movie The Secret World of Airrietty which was based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Probably a concept that does not translate well in Japanese.

    Even UK vs. American titles can be different. I think that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a much better title. Philosopher and Sorcerer to me have very different meanings. There is also an interesting story behind why The Golden Compass is the title of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights in the US.

    1. Yes, we sell first editions of Northern Lights at the gallery. The Golden Compass is a prime example of mixing up two different types of compass.


    Another novel I’ve found with equally beautiful and terrible translations is, “Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johan Von Goethe. Modern library has the most eloquent in my opinion.

    1. I can see how Goethe would be difficult to translate well. I’ve also seen this problem with Rilke, whom I love.

  3. Mike C says:

    How about the Russian favorite “War and Peace.” The interesting thing is that in Russian the final word “Миръ” could mean world or peace, leaving the reader, most russians, and the world, guessing as to Tolstoy’s actual intent. Is it really “War and the World,” or “War and Peace?” Personally, I think he left it vague on purpose, showing his brilliance and ability to “word craft.”

    1. Interesting, I didn’t know that!

  4. Steve P. says:

    I have seen Dostoevsky’s Demons translated with the title “The Possessed”, and even seen a comment that this translation is incorrect. Have you read it and do you have an opinion on the matter?

    1. Mike C. says:

      I have not read that work (rather newer to the “Russian in Russian” scene), but you have definitely sparked my curiosity. I will look into it in the near future. Thanks for the suggestion. I love the way that the Russian writers often throw their beliefs and musings about morality in with so little apology or regard for the reader. It can sometimes feel like you are reading their personal memoirs. Pushkin is a great example of this.

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