Titles Are the Hardest Part

Well, not really: many are easy, literal, straightforward, straight-faced and unpunny. But we all have our pet peeves or favorites that caused trouble at the border crossing between tongues. They’re a short, easy thing to wish had gone differently.

Movies provide many quizzical examples. Who knows what arcane consultations are involved in title choice? Adam Sandler’s Anger Management came out when I was living in France, where the posters called it Self Control. (This bit of franglais earned snickers from my visiting brother; I of course knew no better.) The coin of English minted into French currency has a different heft and can sound tinnier. French in English is apt to sound snooty, and English in French to be a downmarket abridgement. The Brits gave France le fair-play, but we gave them le fast-food. One might think that even when the words are changed, their weight would be preserved. But will Le train sifflera trois fois (lit. The Train Will Whistle Three Times) ever hint at so dire an appointment as High Noon?

And what about that phrase to which Henri Cartier-Bresson is now irrevocably wedded, gone from book title to life motto? The Decisive Moment, legimately derived by his American editor from a meditation by Cardinal de Retz on which Cartier-Bresson founded his philosophy of photography. Meant to slice like a guillotine, The Decisive Moment is so weighty, fate’s marmoreal fulcrum, like Henry James’ “distinguished thing.” It omits a certain on-the-fly sprightliness of the original, Images à la Sauvette, the mischief and improvisation of the man who plucked a puddle-jumper from anonymity for immortality “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare.” Still, the golden age of blithely altered titles is gone, and with it a certain insouciance, a source of startling disparities. More recently, Roger Grenier’s lovely, nostalgic Le Pierrot Noir became in the admirable Alice Kaplan’s hands, Another November, suitably autumnal for a slim and melancholy novel whose namesake is a decaying carnival ride.

What makes a title tricky? Anything where sound and sense must be compressed is tricky, where the balance between sense and letter falls away from the latter. Titles are tighter than most epigrams; less matter-of-fact than subtitles but often just as haiku, with quibbles down to the syllable count; and sometimes just this side of idiom, which often forces one expression to stand in for another only figuratively related. One wants for them the stringency of individual lines of poetry, the same power to beguile and arrest. In return they demand, from the translator, a playful wit and ear.

Take two examples from my limited experience: last year, for Two Lines, I did a short comic from François Ayroles’ collection Travail rapide et soigné. Literally, Quick and Careful Work. Of all possible translations, this most closely approximates old chewing gum: gray and flavorless, utterly without snap. And “careful” was too cautious in English. Soigné was more… attentive. Painstaking. Meticulous, even; more about the care given than the care taken. I wound up with Quick’n’Classy Clips. In this find I was aided by the drawing of a barber adorning the cover. There he stands beside the chair, with trim mustache and parted hair, compliant as a butler, in his surgically immaculate jacket.

I had enough cultural context to know this wasn’t an epithet specific to barbershops: it could apply to a variety of manual laborers (handymen, movers) but just as well white collar paperwork expediters. In that brief expression were connotations of professionalism and echoes of advertisement promise, which Ayroles undercut ironically. So it had to be snappy, it had to have the spiffy shipshape of hands dusted off to prove a task dispatched. It had to be brisk and yet genteel, even rollicking and old-timey, like the name “Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor.” My title added a pun on “clips” I felt sure the author would forgive; “work” contains such drudgery. Using the apostrophe gave it the bit of Bugs Bunny that a collection of witty strips needed.

Forming a mental image is, anyway, something a translator does. Something an author does. One works from the inchoate and the other from that person’s idiolect. As Borges says (and Suzanne Jill Levine reminds us), “the only difference between an original and a translation is that a translation can be measured against a visible text.”

Words Without Borders featured a prose piece by French cartoonist Gébé from the collection Reportages pas vraiment ratés (mais difficiles à vendre à France Soir), which became Not Quite Botched Dispatches (But a Hard Sell for the Nightly News). On the whole, this was a matter of rhythms and sonorities, of reproducing the humor of the unwieldy verbiage: the French doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. (I also swapped a paper daily, France Soir, for a TV program.) “Not the specific sounds or rhythm but the devices used to create effects,” as Marian Schwartz says in her Boston Globe interview, when asked if she attempted “to replicate the sounds of certain words or rhythm of sentences.”

How about you, editors and translators? Anyone out there have title battle tales they want to share?

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