Humanity has been translating words from one language into another for thousands of years – from inscriptions in stone to religious texts, from books to films, and even songs.
But as any translator will tell you, sometimes it’s just impossible to copy everything into another language and expect it to have the same effect; some real creativity and ingenuity is needed to adapt the text to the new audience. Occasionally, the best solution is to leave some aspects behind in the original language, omitting certain parts in order for it to make sense – and be well received – in the new language. This is called translation loss.
Whether intentionally done or not, translation loss doesn’t necessarily mean that the translator has failed or admitted defeat – some pieces of work have still proved to be very popular in other languages, whether people are aware that there are aspects missing or not. Let’s look at a few!
This whimsical romantic comedy about a shy but eccentric waitress caused lead actress Audrey Tautou to shoot to international fame, and holds a place in the hearts of many Francophiles. But the French version has some even more quirky aspects that did not make it across to the English subtitles.
For example, here’s the part where the narrator describes the things that Amélie’s parents like (and don’t like), revealing a glimpse into their neurotic nature.
The English subtitles say:
Her father, an ex-army doctor, works at a spa at Enghien-Les-Bains.
Raphael Poulain dislikes: peeing next to someone else. He also dislikes catching scornful glances at his sandals, and clingy wet swimming trunks.
Raphael Poulain likes: peeling large strips of wallpaper. Lining up and shining his shoes. Emptying out his tool box, cleaning it out, and putting everything back.
Amélie’s mother, a school mistress from Grugeon, has always had shaky nerves.
She dislikes: puckered fingers in the bath. Having her hands touched by strangers. Pillow marks on her cheek in the morning.
Amandine Poulain likes: figure skaters’ costumes on TV. Polishing the parquet with her slippers. Emptying her handbag, cleaning it out, and putting everything back.
In a minute and a half, this scene tells you all you need to know about Amélie’s parents through a peculiar (but potentially relatable!) list. However, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that the dialogue in this section rhymes when spoken out loud in French, making this scene feel even more like the beginning of a children’s story.
Le père d’Amélie, ancien médecin militaire, travaille aux établissements thermaux d’Enghien-les-Bains.
Raphael Poulain n’aime pas: pisser a côté de quelqu’un.
Il n’aime pas : surprendre sur ses sandales un regard de dédain;
sortir de l’eau et sentir coller son maillot de bain.
Raphael Poulain aime : arracher les morceaux de papier peint;
aligner toutes ses chaussures et les aligner avec soin;
vider sa boite à outils, bien la nettoyer, et tout ranger, enfin.
La mère d’Amélie, Amandine Fouet, institutrice originaire de Gueugnon, a toujours été d’une nature instable et nerveuse.
Amandine Poulain n’aime pas : avoir les doigts plissés par l’eau chaude du bain;
être par quelqu’un, qu’elle n’aime pas, effleurée de la main;
avoir les plis des draps imprimés sur la joue le matin.
Amandine Poulain aime : les costumes des patineurs artistiques sur TF1;
faire briller le parquet avec des patins;
vider son sac-à-main, bien le nettoyer, et tout ranger, enfin.
The same rhyme also appears in the French title: while the English release was titled Amélie from Montmartre (later shortened to just Amélie), the full French title is Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.
Subtitling is a tricky job, as there is only limited space to convey the dialogue at the bottom of the screen, in short-enough sentences for the viewer to read. It’s a shame that some of the rhyming couldn’t be included in the film, as I think it really adds to the fantastical way that the story is told. Nevertheless, Amélie is still one of the most well-known French films in English-speaking countries, so the subtitles clearly do not detract from the enjoyment of the film (and it’s still one of my personal favourites!).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
The first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy seemed to kick off the world’s obsession with the Scandi-crime genre, spawning a Swedish miniseries, a Hollywood remake, and with a film sequel based on the fourth book in the series (written by David Lagercrantz) also on the way.
The way that the series’ release came about is unusual, as the author, Stieg Larsson, passed away before completing his work, leaving his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, to posthumously release the books – and grapple with the ensuing translations.
One of the main issues that Gabrielsson has taken with the English translation is that the book titles and cover art were changed in order to market the book better. The first title in the series is entitled Män som Hatar Kvinnor in Swedish: Men Who Hate Women. The third title was also changed: from Luftslottet som sprängdes (roughly: The Castle in the Sky that was blown up – the word Luftslottet can also mean “pipe dream” in Swedish) to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
By changing the titles, the English reader’s initial focus is also potentially changed – from the overarching events in the series to “the girl” in question, Lisbeth Salander – while they read the books.
According to Gabrielsson, Larsson had previously refused to have the titles adapted, despite the publisher’s arguments that “Men Who Hate Women” was not a commercial enough title. Gabrielsson agreed with Larsson, believing that calling Lisbeth Salander “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” diminishes her.
Meanwhile, the book’s original English cover portrays a woman with a cute little dragon tattoo on her shoulder – a far cry from the huge tattoo that stretches “from her right shoulder blade down to her buttock” as is described in the Swedish version of the books but which is omitted in the English version.
Both Gabrielsson and the Swedish to English translator, Steven T. Murray, have criticised the English publisher’s attempts to “needlessly prettify” the translation; so much so that Murray eventually used the pseudonym Reg Keeland in the books.
The Little Prince (1943)
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the fourth-best-selling single-volume book of all time and one of the most translated books in the world, after the Bible.
The most famous French to English translation is the first version by Katherine Woods in 1943 (the same year that the French version was published), but in 2000, Richard Howard produced a new translation. There is an ongoing debate about whether the new translation is “better”; fans of the story are more familiar with Woods’ now-famous translation and as Woods’ version is now out of print, it has become highly sought after.
However, Howard says in his translator’s notes at the beginning of his version that the text needed updating, and it is true that Woods’ version contained a few mistranslations.
For example, in Chapter 4, Saint-Exupéry introduces the prince:
Il était une fois un petit prince qui habitait une planète à peine plus grande que lui, et qui avait besoin d’un ami.
Woods translated this sentence as: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep,” mistaking the word ami (friend) for sheep. This caused subsequent translations that used the English text as a reference to also contain this mistranslation, including several Chinese versions. These kinds of mistakes are common when translators use an existing translated text as their source material rather than the original text, as has happened in the past with the Bible and other older texts.
However, there’s another type of loss at play here, that doesn’t specifically count as translation loss but is still worth mentioning: long-time fans of The Little Prince feel that something else has been lost from the new translation. Some say that Howard’s version isn’t as poetic or as charming as Woods’ version, so, despite the new translation being technically more faithful to the French, the lack of evocativeness is loss in itself.
This raises the interesting topic of how people get emotionally attached to certain texts; the same issue has arisen with the new translations of Tintin that were produced in order to create digital editions of the books. In The Little Prince’s case, Woods used her contemporary language and Howard has used his; so it’s possible that new readers of The Little Prince will come to prefer the newer translation in time.
As is often said in translation theory, translation loss is a reminder that if you read a translated work, you are not reading it; you are reading a reading of it. All translators can do is make it as faithful as possible, while still making it enjoyable and relevant for the target audience.
(If you want to see more examples of how translators have found creative solutions to tricky texts, check out my post on how Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into French!)