Cultural impact on the translation of the novels titles
SIMENON SIMENON. MAIGRET, TITOLI E TRADUZIONI: I PRIMI ANNI
L'impatto culturale sulla traduzione dei titoli dei romanzi
SIMENON SIMENON. MAIGRET, TITRES ET TRADUCTIONS: LES PREMIERES ANNEES
L'impact culturel sur la traduction des titres de romans
In her post of 17 June, Titres, traductions, et “faux amis”, Murielle Wenger considers the linguistic issues raised by the translation into English and Italian of Simenon’s Presses de la Cité Maigret stories from 1945. A study of the English-language titles of the earlier Fayard novels, published in France between 1931 and 1934, is equally interesting for the considerations it evokes concerning the publication and reception of Simenon’s work in Great Britain and North America.
Translation rights to the Fayard Maigrets were initially sold on a piecemeal basis to North American and British publishers, primarily ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ magazine and Covici, Friede in the United States and Hurst & Blackett in Britain. In the United States, Monsieur Gallet, décédé and Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien were published in 1932, the year following their appearance in France, as The Death of Monsieur Gallet and The Crime of Inspector Maigret respectively; La Nuit du carrefour appeared in 1933 as The Crossroad Murders; and Le Charretier de ‘La Providence' and L’Ombre chinoise were published together in 1934 as The Crime at Lock 14 and The Shadow in the Courtyard. All of these translations were from the pen of Anthony Abbot whose translation of Pietr-le-Letton surfaced twice in 1933, serialised in ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ as Suite at the Majestic and in novel form as The Strange Case of Pietr the Lett. In Great Britain, Abbot’s translations appeared under the same titles in 1933 and 1934 with the exception of the retitling of Pietr-le-Letton as The Case of Peter the Lett, the title having lost the qualifying adjective ‘strange’ on its crossing of the Atlantic.
The titles chosen by Abbot and/or his publishers raise a number of important literary, cultural and commercial issues relating to translation. The Death of Monsieur Gallet is the closest to Simenon’s original titles but the reformulation has an interesting effect insofar as it places the emphasis of the death of Gallet rather than on the man himself. While this makes it more evident to potential readers that the story is connected in some way to crime, it also has the result of downplaying the extent to which the narrative revolves around Maigret’s attempts to discover the truth about Gallet’s life. The use of the words ‘murder’ (The Crossroad Murders) and ‘crime’ (The Crime of Inspector Maigret and The Crime at Lock 14) also foregrounds the fact that these are crime fiction stories for an English-speaking readership unfamiliar with the series. In the latter title, the focus is shifted from the character of the charretier of Simenon’s original to the place where the crime takes place, due perhaps to Abbot’s concern that while horse-drawn barges were still common in France in the inter-war period, with no less than 1 500 units in operation in 1935, their functioning would be unfamiliar to readers in the United States where canal transport had been largely surpassed the rail network.
In the case of The Crime of Inspector Maigret, the use of the word ‘crime’ provides an element of intrigue to attract the reading public (what kind of crime could a police officer commit?) but the focus is placed on Maigret and the beginning of the inquiry - the commissaire’s switching of suitcases with a man he has observed behaving strangely - rather than the circumstances surrounding the death of the hanged man (le pendu of Simenon’s title) which only gradually become clear as the investigation unfolds. The use of the police rank of inspector in connection with Maigret responds to another difficulty of translation, that of national-specific job titles: while inspecteur has indeed existed at different times as a rank within the French police judiciaire, it was junior to that of Maigret’s position of commissaire. However, the latter rank would be unfamiliar to anglophone readers, hence the need to seek an equivalent and the choice of ‘inspector’, although in the US the status of an ‘inspector’ varies according to the law enforcement agency in question and in Britain, the rank of commissaire would be more accurately translated by ‘superintendent’.
The change in emphasis from a character to a location that has been remarked in The Crime at Lock 14 is also present in the retitling of Pietr-le-Letton for ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ as Suite at the Majestic, although the focus moves back to the central character in the story’s republication later the same year as The Strange Case of Pietr the Lett. The former title, while it may identify with a penchant for descriptions of luxurious living found in the popular 1920s literature of anglophone authors such as William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim, ignores the fact that much of the action of the narrative takes place in the distinctly unglamorous locations of the fishing port of Fécamp and the Marais district of Paris with its predominantly Jewish and East European inhabitants.
Finally, the translation of the title of L’Ombre chinoise presented Abbot with a problem that was as much cultural as linguistic. While shadow puppetry, known in French as ‘l’ombre chinoise’ because of its origins, had been a popular entertainment in Paris during the 19th century, especially in the famous Paris nightclub ‘Le Chat noir’, it was less well-known in the English-speaking world, hence the difficulty of finding a translation that would make sense to readers. In consequence, the chosen title, The Shadow in the Courtyard, presents a change of perspective: the shadow image is not, in fact, in the courtyard but seen from the courtyard backlit in the window of the victim’s office.
In summary, then, the titles of the first English-language translations of the Maigret novels, published within two years of their initial appearance in French, provide numerous examples of the issues facing the translator in mediating ideas and language from a different culture. A subsequent post will consider how these questions have continued to resurface in different publishing contexts throughout the subsequent eighty-plus years of translation into English of the Fayard Maigret series.
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