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Translation Blog: Pride, Prejudice and Proust

Translation of Books

This translation blog is about good and bad translations of book titles.

First the bad:

Every educated Spanish speaker has read, heard of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Orgullo y Prejuicio. An interesting case of how a badly translated title gets established in a language. It would be impossible to change it now because it is so familiar. But let’s see why it is bad.

Incidentally, the expression “pride and prejudice” is a quote from a novel by another popular woman author writing a few years before Austen – and whose name I’ll add here when I can find it again . Pride refers here to the cardinal sin of pride, which in Spanish is “soberbia” (from Latin superbia: arrogance, haughtiness), not to “orgullo”, which is used in the sense of being proud of some achievement or of one’s kids and is not generally considered a sin. “Prejuicio” is the normal word for prejudice, but surely Austen was deliberately using alliteration, (just as she had two years before with Sense and Sensibility), so we ought to try and find a word beginning with s. In a case like this, it may be more important to find an s- word than to translate “prejudice” literally, especially when we apply the usual translation question of “what would a Spanish writer have used?”. A reasonable candidate is “sinrazones”, which translates back roughly as “unreasonableness”. So how about “Soberbia y sinrazones”?

Now all we need is a better translation for Sense and Sensibility, usually translated as “Sentido y Sensibilidad”. “Sense” here means good sense, as opposed to “sensibility” which is an old word for sensitivity (and so nothing much to do with the modern sense of its cousin “sensible”. So we need to emphasise the contrast between head and heart. “Sentido” in Spanish is merely “sense”, i.e. one of the senses, and is rather meaningless here with unqualified. “buen sentido” or “sensatez”. Sensatez y sensibilidad gets the meaning, but it would probably sound better the other way round: Sensibilidad y sensatez. (Thanks to my Spanish wife Estrella for these suggestions.)

Proust’s novel “A la recherche du temps perdu” has a very tough title to translate. “In search of lost time” doesn’t really do it, and loses the double sense of “temps perdu” wasted time. The first English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, hit on a brilliant solution by quoting from Shakespeare’s sonnet no XXX: “Remembrance of Things Past”.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

There are wonderful resonances between the theme of the sonnet and Proust’s novel, all summed up by a brilliant title. One feels that Proust would have approved.

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