Thursday, July 16, 2009

A.K.A. in the U.S.A.

Ever since I first struggled to read a book written in a British idiom, I have known that the English spoken in England is different from that spoken in America. Nevertheless I have always found it strange that books by English authors, even very successful ones, have to be "translated" for American readers. Part of their charm, I would think, would lie in the peculiar lilt of our language as spoken on its native soil. On the other hand, sometimes the dialect is so thick that, unless it is dialed down, the average Yank will be completely at sea.

But when the American publishers' demands extend as far as changing the title of a book, I bristle. It's hard enough when they tell an author whose book is thriving on British soil that it won't survive across the Atlantic without a major overhaul. But to add that the name, the very identity, of the book must change: that's just cruel. And, in my opinion, it is usually stupid as well.

I first became aware of this aberration in American publishing when I was a young teenager, during my Agatha Christie phase. Check out this list of Dame Agatha's works and see how many titles are followed by "also" and another title. Those also's, in the main, represent alternate titles forced on the celebrated mystery writer by American publishers. Some of them are well-known to Americans, who have never known those books under their original title. Others seem bizarre and ill-judged.

For example, the jerks at Dodd, Mead forced Agatha to change Murder on the Orient Express to Murder in the Calais Coach. What?! They made her change Death in the Clouds to Death in the Air. Why? Why Didn't They Ask Evans? became The Boomerang Clue. Groan! The A.B.C. Murders became The Alphabet Murders. Huh? Dumb Witness became Poirot Loses a Client. Eurgh! Murder Is Easy became Easy to Kill, which carries perhaps an unintended double meaning. Agatha's top seller, And Then There Were None, has been published and filmed under the racist title Ten Little Indians and, even worse, saw its first US imprint as Ten Little Niggers. Another book with not one but two alternate, U.S. titles - both inferior - is One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, a.k.a. An Overdose of Death, a.k.a. The Patriotic Murders.

Some of the substituted titles are OK in and of themselves, but why were they necessary? Thirteen at Dinner may actually be an improvement on Lord Edgware Dies. But why must Five Little Pigs become Murder in Retrospect? How is Remembered Death a better title than Sparkling Cyanide? Does adding The Case of to the front of The Moving Finger strengthen or weaken the title's impact? Is not Taken at the Flood as good a title as There Is a Tide...? I could go on and on. There are lots of other examples, and they frustrate me endlessly.

The result of such ponderings, which I have pondered since I was roughly 13 years old, is that I get miffed every time I hear the title of a British novel, followed by the words "published in the US as..." Before the world learned to love the books of J. K. Rowling, Scholastic cajoled her into letting them change Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The result? Fans in the US know this book, and the movie based on it, under a different title than the rest of the world. A title that makes no meaningful reference to anything. A title conjured out of thin air, on the assumption that children wouldn't get a reference to the fabled Philosopher's Stone. But what are we to get out of "Sorcerer's Stone"? Nothing but confusion!

Debi Gliori's Pure Dead novels fell victim to a similar dictum by American publishers. After her first three books began with the words Pure Dead..., they insisted that the last three should do so also. And thus Deep Trouble, Deep Water, and Deep Fear became Pure Dead Trouble, Pure Dead Batty, and Pure Dead Frozen. Never mind that none of these phrases has the authentic ring of Pure Dead Magic, Pure Dead Wicked, and Pure Dead Brilliant - or any other kind of ring.

Philip Pullman's Northern Lights crossed the Atlantic to become The Golden Compass. There's no going back on it now, no matter what you think of the His Dark Materials trilogy. It's yet another instance of North American fans becoming attached to a bestselling series that exists everywhere else in the world under a different title. It must make it very inconvenient to sustain a global fandom in the internet age, or to market a film adaptation opening worldwide. Whenever someone issues a statement about it, half the world will wonder what they're talking about.

Some translated books have come into English with more than one title. This is usually, however, the result of separate translations. For example, Michael Ende's Momo originally came into the English language as The Grey Gentlemen; it got its proper title back only when a new translation was published ten years later. Several of Tove Jansson's Moomin books exist in more than one English translation, each with its own title: for example, Finn Family Moomintroll and The Happy Moomins are the same book, as are The Exploits of Moominpappa and Moominpappa's Memoirs.

I recently became aware of a vampire novel by the Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. It original title Låt den rätte komma in is based on Morrissey's song "Let the Right One Slip In." The original title of the English translation is, accordingly, Let the Right One In. I think it's a marvelous title. It does sound like an echo from a song, while also capturing the sadness, discontent, yearning, and hope one might find in a dark story about a troubled boy who invites a vampire girl into his life. What did the US publishers do with this title? They changed it. To Let Me In. The losers! Who is going to forget a title like Let the Right One In? Who is going to remember Let Me In? I ask you!

When I decided I wanted to read Let the Right One In, I had to order it from a British bookseller via Abebooks. Why? Because it is only sold on American soil under the title Let Me In. And I could not bring myself to read the book if I had to look at that bogus, flaccid, dumbed-down, forgettable title, and hold in my hands such a reminder of idiot American publishers' way of throwing their weight around. I had to engage in transatlantic trade in order to read a book that is readily available in the U.S., because I couldn't bear to see the title Let Me In at the top of every page. That's just the kind of fat, stupid jerk I am.


Wavefighter said...

God point, Robbie. No, you're not a fat, stupid jerk. You're absolutely right. It's especially upsetting with the change of Let the Right One In because the English "Morrissey" title is even more accurate than the Swedish "original" one.

Robbie F. said...

Thanks, Wavefighter. I just remembered another example, BTW... C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels, many of which have alternate titles in the US. Some of the differences are minor, such as "A Ship of the Line" (UK) vs. "Ship of the Line" (US), but the biggest variance of course concerns the first novel, "The Happy Return" (UK) vs. "Beat to Quarters" (US). More info available here.