I have just returned from a few pints in my local hostelry where I had a lovely conversation with a couple of charming Italian ladies about the English language. Which made me think of something I came across a couple of days ago.
In the bookshops is a newish edition of Françoise Sagan, containing in a single volume her two novels Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile. It said so on the cover. Both books were of course written in French and A Certain Smile was originally called Un Certain Sourire. Yet that title has been translated while Bonjour Tristesse has not. The reason for this inconsistency is, I’m sure, that Hello, Sadness sounds so irredeemably stupid in English (so does the utterly literal Good-day, Sadness, which if anything adds a feeling of lunatic politeness).
Some titles, like A Rebours, are untranslatable. Others like L’Etranger dwindle a little in translation (étranger can mean either outsider, foreigner or stranger, but the English translator can only choose one). But these cases are quite different from those foreign words and phrases that, when translated, lose their exoticism. The ancient authority of Latin, the cerebral chic of French, the compounded intellectualism of German and the romantic intensity of Italian all vanish with translation. It’s like Helen of Troy visiting her gynaecologist. There is a terrible sense of: “Is that all it means?”
This is particularly true of Italian names. Would you go to an opera by Joe Green? Or be seduced by Jacob Newhouse? Or watch a film starring Lenny Goat? Of course not.
But Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Casanova and Leonardo Di Caprio are another matter