Yesterday I spent a pleasant afternoon trawling Barcelona’s bookshops for Viscount Lascano Tegui’s De la elegancia mientras se duerme. The Viscount was not actually a viscount, but an Argentinian writer who lived in Paris in the early Twentieth Century, was a friend of Picasso and Apollinaire, as well as a painter, poet, diplomat and dental technician. None other than Leopold Lugones characterised one of his books as ‘abracadabrante’ (‘abracadabrant’), but he was largely forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic until Impedimenta reissued De la elegancia… in 2008.
All the time I was looking for it, I was wondering how I would translate the title into English. In the end I decided on ‘On the Elegance of Sleepers’. This solution is not a precise rendering (which would be more like ‘On Elegance Whilst One Sleeps’), but to me at least reproduces the suggestive, poetic effect of the original.
After locating what was apparently the only copy of the book currently available in the city, I discovered that it had recently been translated into English by Idra Novey and published by the Dalkey Archive Press. In fact, her translation was longlisted for this year’s Three Percent Best Translated Book award.
Novey’s translation, however, was published as On Elegance While Sleeping. This solution seems to me to be the worst of both worlds: it isn’t quite a direct translation of the original and it somehow doesn’t sound quite right in English. But these questions are highly subjective, of course, which is why I asked the QuickSilver Facebook community to vote on which rendering they preferred.
The results were interesting. As of this morning, out of 22 votes both On the Elegance of Sleepers and On Elegance While Sleeping had nine votes, and On How to Sleep with Elegance, a wild card option entered by a participant, had four.
QuickSilver president Colin Whiteley set the cat among the pigeons by proposing Sleeping with Elegance. A self-proclaimed aficionado of ambiguous titles, he liked the fact that ‘to sleep with’ has an additional resonance in English; his version foregrounds something which is only suggested or implied by the original…
Although it might seem like a rather flippant bit of research, these findings do highlight the fact that one of the most important things to remember (and one of the easiest to forget) is that there is often no ‘right answer’ to a translation challenge. The option you go for will depend on an interaction between a variety of personal factors and the nature and function of the source text.