By M Lynx Qualey
Free adaptation is not a strategy much in vogue with contemporary literary translators, either in English or in Arabic. While a century ago, a translator might have made extensive changes to a text to suit the imagined tastes of their audience—the way a theater director might adapt a play—contemporary translators and publishers are far more likely to value a relatively strict notion of fidelity. Except, that is, when it comes to the title.
A translated title might be a whole-cloth invention that comes from the book’s translator, editor, or publisher, or even from a press’s marketing department. There are many reasons to change a title, and while they vary by language paring, there are a few constants, some of which Rongmei Yu highlights in an article on the translation of English-language film titles into Chinese. Like film titles, a contemporary book title must not only catch a reader’s attention; it must convince the reader that it’s their sort of book.
Book titles are thus markedly different from titles of online articles, which require relatively low-stakes engagement. If you find you’re not interested in “6 Arabic Novels That Get America Hilariously Wrong, and 1 That Gets It Hilariously Right,” then you can back out of the listicle with relative ease, having spent hardly any time or resources on it, largely unchanged by the experience.
But a book is a commitment, if not financially, then socially and personally. Readers might have narrow tastes or broad ones; but in either case, they have some idea of what they like. A book’s title signals its genre, telling us what type of company it (and, by extension, we) might keep. Would we want this book to live on our shelves? Does it suit our personality? In the best of cases, the title is also part of the literary experience; a great title will stretch and grow so that it reads differently after you have finished the book.
Another feature of contemporary English book titles is that they are exceptionally short. Translating the few words of a contemporary title into English is much like translating poetry or lines from a children’s book; the translator must maneuver in a very small space. Inside the meat of the book, many translation strategies and paratextual elements can thicken a reader’s understanding. Titles allow for no gloss or footnoting; they are all gymnastics and no explanation.
That is not to say that literary considerations are the only ones at work when translating a title—or even that they are primary. A title is often considered as much a part of the marketing material as it is a literary artifact. In a recent Zoom conversation that touched on the politics of translation, agent Yasmina Jraissati suggested that she’s more open to a title change than a change in the body of the work, as a title “has to convey something to the audience.”
Yet what exactly is being conveyed, and to which imagined audience?
Titles of the Lost
Among those titles that do their job brilliantly is Hoda Barakat’s Bareed al-Layl. It fulfills Rongmei Yu’s mission of being “brief, novel, and attractive,” and it further signals genre and shelf company. In English, it suggests sophisticated literary fiction, perhaps with a speculative element. Indeed, in the epistolary Bareed al-Layl, letters are read by a chain of companion-strangers; although far darker, it has elements of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The title signals this sort of company.
The title further hints at what translator Yasmine Seale has described as the “night language” of the Thousand and One Nights. The night post will perhaps be more vulgar or more fantastical than what we would expect from a daytime letter. It will speak about things that are unsayable—or at least unsaid—during the day. In the end, the title suggests this is a novel for readers of sophisticated literary fiction, and indeed: it is.
So it was a surprise when the novel began to appear for pre-order from OneWorld in 2020 under a very different title. Its new title, Voices of the Lost, appeared on a background of pastels: contrails in the sky, turquoise sea below. One would certainly be forgiven for assuming this title was a work of nonfiction about refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The title seems to call out to an imagined audience of savior-readers, asking them to help find these authentic lost voices. Genre-wise, it suggests migrant and exile nonfiction, perhaps akin to the “Voices of Witness” series.
In response to an earlier question about translating the title of Jokha al-Harthi’s Sayyidat al-Qamr, Marilyn Booth—also the translator of Bareed al-Layl— wrote, “Oh!! Titles… sometimes I think I stress over titles—and opening sentences—for more hours than I spend on the rest of the translation. In my experience, titles either work beautifully as literal translations of the original, or the original is impossible. There’s no in-between.”
In the case of Bareed al-Layl, the title does work beautifully in English as a relatively literal translation. Bareed al-Layl and The Night Post or The Night Mail have similar associations. And yet the publisher decided to change the title. Jraissati said, “It was the editor’s choice, she felt very strongly about it. In the end, it’s her market, and I want her to be able to sell the books, so I had to give in. But we really tried to hang on to the original title: me, the translator, the author.”
Jraissati added: “In the end, the publisher was more adamant. And she had commercial arguments. Given that we really wanted the book to be out with her, because it’s a beautiful house, and we wanted it to sell and to work, we gave in on that one.”
Yet this new title, Jraissati suggested, might have been the cause of an early cover misfire for the US edition. “They sold the rights to Yale University Press,” Jraissati said. “And then they sent me a cover, and I wrote a page-long email refusing the cover, which was horrible. It didn’t correspond to the book. It seemed like they hadn’t read it. It was the ‘migration crisis cover,’ people behind barbed wire. This is not what the book is about!”
Without an extensive survey, it’s hard to know how this title change might have affected reviewers, readers, librarians, and teachers of the book. Unfortunately, the novel had relatively little pickup in English. However, a Guardian review does put “migrant” right in the headline: “Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat review – migrant stories.”
Sometimes, as with al-Harthi and Booth’s Celestial Bodies, the new title influences translations into other languages. Fortunately, in a brief survey of translations of Barakat’s novel, the English title doesn’t seem to have been echoed elsewhere.
In an interview from 2019, Booth said the two titles she struggled with the most were Alharthi’s Sayyidat al-Qamr and Hoda Barakat’s Ahl al-Hawa, roughly People of Passion, which became Disciples of Passion. As she said of Alharthi’s novel, “So, sayyidat: ‘ladies’ totally doesn’t work, nor does ‘mistresses’ with that word’s various connotations in English, nor does ‘women’ (though that would have been better than the others). Sayyidat here is about authority and status both, and it is also about service—I could not find a word that worked well enough in English: in this case, English’s lexicon is just not rich enough (or I’m not imaginative enough). And ‘moon’ I also wanted to keep, but again, it just did not work in English to convey the layers of meaning in Arabic generally and in the novel specifically.”
There are many cases like Sayyidat al-Qamr, where a more “direct” translation doesn’t yield the right cultural associations. This is particularly the case where there is wordplay at work. Egyptian author Adel Kamel’s 1941 novel Maleem al-Akbar is roughly Maleem the Great, but this forfeits a key association: that the character’s name, Maleem, also means “penny.” In Waleed Almusharaf’s translation, the book is retitled The Magnificent Conman of Cairo, giving it an expansive sweep Kamel might well have enjoyed.
Sahar Khalifeh’s Asl w Fasl similarly loses its roots and its rhythm in English; in Aida Bamia’s translation, it’s now called Of Noble Origins; the meaning is kept but not the rhyme. In general, rhyme is the first thing to be forfeited when translating a title. I wanted to keep the lilt of Sonia Nimr’s Rihlat Ajeeba Fi Al Bilad Al Ghareeba, but the publisher and author preferred a more direct translation: Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands.
Rhyme was also an issue when translating the title of Omaima al-Khamis’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning Masra al-Gharaniq fi Mudun al-‘Aqiq (Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate). When asked about the new English title (The Book Smuggler) by ArabLit’s Tugrul Mende, al-Khamis said, “I did not find the English title as magical and poetic as the one in Arabic. But the committee that was responsible for the translation told me they chose this title to suit Western tastes and marketing conditions.”
At times, cultural specificity is forfeited for a more generic-sounding title in English, as with Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyat, in translation by Sophia Vasalou. The English title no longer evokes a particular village, but instead sounds as if it might be set anywhere: The Old Woman and the River. There are also cases where the translator chooses to go with a direct translation, even though much of the cultural specificity is lost, as with Reem Bassiouney’s Awlad al-Nas, which became an echoing Sons of the People in Roger Allen’s translation. In this case, the reader will discover what these “sons of the people” are in the course of reading the novel.
Certainly, Voices of the Lost is not the only title translation that places its book into a different genre. A classic is Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad’s Tawahin Beirut, (roughly: The Mills of Beirut) which becomes, in Leslie McLoughlin’s translation, A Death in Beirut. The novel now sounds like a murder mystery. In a similar vein, Sinan Antoon’s evocatively titled Wahdaha Shajara al-Rumman, (The Pomegranate Alone) became The Corpse Washer. In Jraissati’s opinion, “It’s not a nice title. The Corpse Washer, who would want to read that? The Pomegranate Alone, it’s more poetic, and it’s the intention of the author in the Arabic.”
Nights and Nights
The most well-known Arabic title change is probably that of Alf Layla w Layla, which became the “Arabian Nights Entertainments” with the 1706 English edition, a title the collection still has not managed to shake. Indeed, it has even affected other titles that reference the Nights. For instance, Naguib Mahfouz’s Alf Layla w Layla became Arabian Nights and Days when translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and published in 1979.
Many of Mahfouz’s titles are markedly different in English translation, but perhaps the only title change to have an impact on Arabic literature was that of Awlad Haretna, (Children of our Hara), which became Children of Gebelawi in Philip Stewart’s 1981 translation. In the 1981 English edition, the title shifts our focus away from the hara—a socio-spatial location that was an obsession of Mahfouz’s, usually translated as “alley”—to the strongman, Gebelawi. This, in turn, inspired a title in response, Ibrahim Farghali’s Sawiris-award-winning Sons of Gebelawi, a satire in which all of Mahfouz’s works suddenly disappear. Authorities attempt to deal with the situation, including by rallying people who have memorized the works to greater or lesser degrees of success. Later editions of the Mahfouz novel in English translation changed the title to Children of the Alley, although not to Children of Our Alley.
Something completely different
Occasionally, a new title really works as a literary intervention.
When it came to Samar Yazbek’s al-Masha’a, Jraissati said that a direct translation was “impossible. La Marcheuse works [in French], but in so many languages it doesn’t work. We had to be so creative. Initially, she had hesitated between [calling the book] Al-Qalam al-Azraq and al-Masha’a, so in some territories, I said, okay, let’s say The Blue Pen. The English editor went with something completely different,” Planet of Clay.
“I think it’s a good title,” Jraissati said. “It does relate to the character, which is why Samar accepted it. It felt close to her world. Titles are complicated, because it’s different from the actual content. It makes sense; you want titles to evoke something in the audience. But sometimes, they’re not the best choices.”
Ten titles that changed in translation, some of which are not the best choices:
Jokha Alharthi’s Sayyidat al-Qamr (Ladies of the Moon) becomes Celestial Bodies
Ismail Fahd Ismail’s Al-Sabiliyat (Sabiliyat) becomes The Old Woman and the River
Hoda Barakat’s Al-Bareed al-Layl (The Night Post) becomes Voices of the Lost
Hoda Barakat’s Ahl al-Hawa (People of Passion) becomes Disciples of Passion
Adel Kamel’s Maleem al-Akbar (Maleem the Great) becomes The Magnificent Conman of Cairo
Sinan Antoon’s Wahdaha Shajara ar-rumman (The Pomegranate Alone) becomes The Corpse Washer
Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad’s Tawahin Beirut (The Mills of Beirut) becomes A Death in Beirut
Naguib Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretna (Children of Our Hara) becomes Children of Gebelawi an then Children of the Alley
Omaima al-Khamis’s Masra al-Gharaniq fi Mudun al-‘Aqiq (Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate), becomes The Book Smuggler
Naguib Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretna (Children of Our Alley) becomes Children of Gebelawi or, in later editions, Children of the Alley
M Lynx Qualey is founding editor of ArabLit.