Readers Ask
Every now and then I will present questions that readers of Intralingo have sent regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers. I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with your thoughts in a comment as well!

Hey Lisa!

I have another question which I half know the answer to.  In my book, the author often mentions works written by others, novels for example. Do I leave the titles of the novels or other works in Spanish, do I leave the Spanish, in italics and put a translation in parenthesis, or do I just use the translation of the title?  My author puts the year of publication at the end of each title, in parenthesis. So that starts to look bulky — if I use parenthesis for my translation, then what do I do with the date? This is further complicated by the fact that one of the titles has already been translated into English and so there is an official English title. Do I then dispense with the Spanish version altogether and just use the English one?



Hey Joan,

There’s no one “right” answer to your question… of course. 😉

What you decide to do will depend on several factors, including: (1) what the author is trying to convey; (2) what you feel readers need to understand fully; and (3) whether you want to transmit a sense of the source culture or localize things for an English readership.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. There are two movies mentioned in the novel I just finished. Both of them date from a particular era and so are used to evoke that period. Neither title is intrinsic to the story, however.

Based on research, it appears that neither movie was ever produced in English. Thus, translating the title into English would not give the reader any further information than simply seeing the title in Spanish. Plus, if readers did want to know more and looked the English movie title up online, they wouldn’t find it and might think the movie was imaginary.

This was also one instance where it was easy (and important) to remind readers that the story is set in Spain, a foreign country, not in their backyard. I therefore left both movies in Spanish.

However, at another point in this novel, there is mention of a famous book by Bécquer. That book was translated and is well-known in English, so I used the published title in English.

As a general rule, I would say that if the work is something readers can find in English, then by all means use the existing English title.

I’m not a fan of inserting a translation of the title in brackets beside the original — when you’re translating a literary work, that is. Granted, doing so does give readers an idea of what the title means, but unless that’s intrinsic to the story I find it disrupts the flow of reading.

I can’t remember exactly the style or purpose of this particular piece you’re working on. I remember you telling me it’s a true story, but is the author aiming to have it read like a work of creative non-fiction or more of an academic text? That would influence my decision as to what I would do in your situation. I think it can be more acceptable to include translations in square brackets when the work is not literary.

I hope this helped and didn’t just add more things to consider in the decision-making process! 😉

Readers, what approach do you think works best with the titles of books, movies and so on in literary translations?