Monday, March 29, 2010

Men Who Love Translation Oddities

Well, one man, anyway: me. I’m sure there are others, but I’ll refrain from speaking for all of them.

This weekend, I was looking at a bookstore display for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, the first two books of the late author’s Millennium trilogy. I’ve only read the first. The version of it that I bought — yellow and green cover with a Chinese dragon design — seems to be the most widely distributed one. It looks like this:

 I say it’s an effective cover, even if the colors displayed prepared me for a different sort of story than the one told in the book. Before I picked up my copy, I knew nothing about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — not that it was originally written in Swedish, not that it took place in Sweden, not even that it was a detective story. Just judging the book by its cover, I imagined that the titular tattooed lady was herself Asian, some vampy stereotype existing in a previous decade, maybe someone who could have existed in Robert Towne’s Chinatown. A dumb decision to leap to, in retrospect, but that’s why we’re cautioned against this very activity. Dragon Tattoo is bleak and graphic and, since it begins in the dead of a Swedish winter, not exactly colorful, at least in the literal sense. It grows and changes and eventually gets splashed with quite a bit of blood red by the end, and by the time I finished the last page I was glad I’d read it. Nonetheless, the cover caught my eye, and I don’t feel embarrassed to have the book resting on my shelf.

In the bookstore, I saw plenty of copies with this good version of the book, but also several of the Spanish translation, which, inexplicably, had a far worse cover — chromatically appropriate, maybe, but overall poorly designed and downright ugly.

See, rather than abstracting the titular character by focusing on her tattoo, whoever designed this garbage chose to depict her as a tattoo-less waif, distorted and cartoonish to the point that she looks like a failed attempt and drawing a realistic Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Clearly, someone hates Spanish-speakers and wants to deter them from reading the book. I also wonder why the title would have been rendered Los hombres que no amaban las mujeres, literally “The men who do not love the women,” instead of something using a form of the verbs odiar or detestar, which both mean “to hate.”

The Spanish version is a translated version of the original Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, “Men who hate women.” Since the novel concerns various awful things done to several female characters, it’s actually a better title for the story, even if it wouldn’t have sold as many copies in the U.S. (Worst case scenario: Man with rage issues buys Men Who Hate Women thinking it’s a self-help book, only to get some awful, awful ideas.) Furthermore, as far as the first novel goes, the tatted-out Lisbeth Salander isn’t really the main character; she shares that responsibility with Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged investigative reporter who’s less sexy and overall less interesting than Lisbeth. (I’ve not read the series any further, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Larsson ultimately made the series Lisbeth’s story.) Putting Lisbeth at the forefront certainly seems to be the tactic employed by the people who marketed the Swedish-language film adaptation. Lookit:

There they are, Lisbeth and Mikael both, but it’s clear that Lisbeth gets more emphasis, just by virtue of where she’s situated in the photo. For this film’s subtitled, English-language release, however, the poster uses the same photo of actress Noomi Rapace but omits the actor playing Mikael entirely:

And, again, the title was changed to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, because it’s simply grabbier to us English-speakers.

The English title also fits better with the structure of the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire. In the original Swedish, it’s basically that: Flickan som lekte med elden. The theme doesn’t hold, however, with the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, as the original Swedish has it as Luftslottet som sprängdes — “The Air Castle that blew up.” The Spanish titles for these books, by the way, are La chica que soñaba con una cerilla y un bidon de gasolina (“The girl who dreamed about a match and a gasoline can”) and La reina en el palacio de las corrientes de aire (“The queen in the palace of the airflows”).

Translation, previously:

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