Christie in Translation: Your Experiences

A while ago I reviewed The Ageless Agatha Christie (2016) essay collection and one of my favourite essays was on Hungarian translations of Christie and the quite surprisingly big changes some of the translators made. My interest piqued, I decided to investigate for further changes made to Christie’s novels when in translation. Not being a linguist I asked for volunteers from around the world if they would contribute to a post about the changes they have seen made to Christie novels in their own language. So I suppose this is where my part of the post ends and where our jaunt around the world begins…

To start us off Stefano Serafini shares with us about Italian translations of Christie…..

In Italy, detective novels are usually called gialli, which take their name from the yellow cover of the crime series published by ‘Arnoldo Mondadori Editore’ starting from 1929. Initially, the series consisted almost exclusively in translations of British and American detective writers. Among them, there was Agatha Christie, for whom Mondadori had acquired exclusive rights.

Italian Christie 1Unfortunately, in Italy, the history of translating detective stories has been a fraught and at times destructive one and Christie has not been an exception. This is related to the way in which detective fiction has been viewed by the Italian literary establishment: Italian scholars and critics have regarded detective fiction as paraliterature without literary value for a long time, and even nowadays the genre is largely ignored in Italian academia. Consequently until the early 1980s, most of Christie’s novels were printed in Italy in abridged and condensed versions, copies of which can still be found in libraries and bookstores.

In the early translations, not only were Christie’s novels abridged, but they were also reshaped for both editorial reasons and the grip of Fascist censorship. Fascism considered detective fiction as an immoral genre and it was strongly hostile to the publications of foreign writers, but the crime series had already gained too much success to be stopped. Therefore, most detective novels were censored and shortened according to the rules of Fascist censors: the translators had to erase any references to suicides, sexual scenes, or Italian characters who were represented ridiculously. They had also to remove any long descriptions, digressions or passages which were not related to the plot. The literary quality of these translations was, therefore, terrible.

Most of Christie’s novels Mondadori published between the early 1930s and the late 1970s, were characterized by reductions and manipulations. The two most obvious examples are Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Murder on the Italian Christie 2Orient-Express (1934), whose translations are still used in some publications. The Italian edition of Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, which was translated by Tito N. Sarego in 1935 as Se morisse mio marito, contains a completely distorted portrayal of the actress Carlotta Adams. Originally, through the words of Poirot, Christie describes the actress in this way: “She is shrewd and that makes for success. Though there is still an avenue of danger since it is of danger we are talking. You mean? Love of money. Love of money may lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path (Christie 1933, 6). In Italian edition, this description is manipulated in order to portray Miss Adams as a greedy Jew: “ [Poirot says] Did you realize she is Jewish, didn’t you? […] when they want, these people can really go far […] [Hastings answers] I didn’t realize she was Jewish in the first place, but then, thanks to the observations of my friend, I noted on her beautiful face the unmistakable traces of her race” (Sarego 1935, 7-8).

Similarly to Lord Edgware Dies, the Italian edition of Murder of the Orient-Express, which was translated by Alfredo Pitta in 1935, was abridged and manipulated by the censorship. For instance, the initial reference to a suicide, a distinguished officer had committed, (Christie 1933, 11) was transformed into a more reassuring disappearance during an excursion in the desert (Pitta 1935, 5). Furthermore, the translator changed the nationality of the two Italian characters: the criminal Cassetti (aka Samuel Edward Ratchett) became O’Hara, while Italian traveller Antonio Foscarelli was transformed into Portuguese Manuel Pereira.

To these manipulations and changes, we should add errors in translating words and misinterpretations in rendering idiomatic English expressions. Christie’s novels Mondadori published in Italy after the Second World War, no longer contained these kinds of manipulations, but the editions were always abridged and condensed due to economical and editorial motives.

Next on our world trip is Stefan Benedek who talks about his early experiences reading Christie in Hungarian and reveals the unusual transformations some of Christie’s titles have undergone…

It was my mother who put me onto reading Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile was the recommendation, but interestingly my love-affair with the Queen of crime began with a more obscure work. I have distinct memories of picking up Christie’s The Clocks. “Órák” it was called in Hungarian (a faithful translation). It was a slim paperback volume in blue. The cover featuring (what else?) several timepieces, accompanied by the unmistakeable egg-shaped head of a certain Belgian detective. I had already seen a film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (the one with Albert Finney) and found it very ingenious. But I wanted something new, a story where I didn’t know whodunit. That was back in the days when I only cared about the whodunit-aspect. At that first reading I found The Clocks incredibly clever and was blown away by the ending (I know I must have been very easy to please back then.) So I moved on to the rest of Christies’ work, (we had some in German, some in Hungarian), such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Christie had always been popular in Hungary, but after the fall of the Iron Curtain there was an explosion in publications and many of the lesser-known works saw the light of day in Hungarian, mostly in cheap paperback editions, the translations not always the most sophisticated and occasionally marred by shortenings of the text. It was in the mid-90’s when I became a really fanatic Christie-reader. This coincided with my parents taking me out of the school I had been visiting in Germany and sending me to a boarding school in Hungary, where I initially felt very uncomfortable. But at least I had books, and it was these paperbacks which I most regularly escaped into. Understandably I wasn’t much concerned with the sometimes shoddy translations as long as Poirot or Marple or Superintendent Battle (called “föfelügyelö” – chief inspector in translation, apparently nobody really knew what a superintendent was) solved the crime. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was first published in Hungarian in 1943 under the amusing title Poirot Mester (Master Poirot), this trend continued with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which became Poirot Mester Bravúrja (A Bravura Performance by Master Poirot), not to be confused with a later edition of Poirot’s Early Cases as Poirot Bravúrjai. These older editions are highly collectible today. Some further amusing titles would be: Vádol a Rózsa! – The Rose Accuses (Sad Cypress); A gyűlölet őrültje – The Madman of Hate (Murder Is Easy); Ne Jöjj Vissza… – Don’t come back! (Murder in Mesopotamia); Az áruló szemüveg – The Glasses Gave it Away (Lord Edgware Dies); and that most controversial of Christie titles which was originally called: A Láthatatlan Hóhér – The Invisible Hangman, before being modernised to: Tíz Kicsi Néger (no translation required I believe), a title the novel has retained until today, which can only mean that Hungarians are less likely to be offended by such things. One seemingly inoffensive little novel, The Secret of Chimneys, however proved quite controversial on its original publication, since it featured the country of Herzoslovakia and a certain Hungarian count Andrássy. Hungary had lost a significant amount of its territory after World War I, among others to Slovakia, so the name Andrássy was purged from the first translation, as well as attempting to eradicate anything resembling the political situation. Today this novel along with Christie’s complete work is available in fresh translations in shiny new hardback editions. No doubt good news not only for boarding-school students.

Up next is Shahrul Hafiz who looks at Christie in Malaysian, providing us with a close up example of the difficulties of translating texts…

Golden Age detective fiction is not popular in Malaysia. Even Agatha Christie’s works, from what I have gathered so far, are not well read, hence the difficulty of finding her works in Malaysian. To find translated Christie’s works here, is like finding a needle in a haystack. However, her books in English are abundant compared to her works in Malaysian. I was lucky to find Parti Halloween (Halloween Party) online published in 2003. I read a chapter in Malaysian followed by reading the same chapter in English. From what I have gathered, the book is a direct translation from English to Malaysian language without any omission or alteration of plots, characters’ names, events, even the language!

Malaysian Christie

Yet there are many instances of awkward translation to be found throughout the book. However, I give one example from chapter 1 to substantiate my claim.

Example: “Puan Oliver merendahkan dirinya ke atas sofa.”

I could not understand the phrase even when reading the whole paragraph to put the phrase into context. But I could understand it very well when reading it in English:

“Mrs Oliver lowered herself once more on to the settee.”

Excerpt From: Christie, Agatha. “Hallowe’en party.” Pocket Books, 1984-10-02

This is clearly a very direct translation and the meaning is ambiguous. “Merendahkan dirinya” means “lowered herself” in direct translation. However, in this particular case, “lowered herself” means sitting while in Malaysian, “merendahkan diri” has a totally different meaning, that of being humbled. The correct translation should have been, “Puan Oliver duduk di atas sofa” which makes perfect sense and is consistent with the intended meaning in English.

In the nutshell, translators have a huge task when translating a book. For getting the job well done, the translator must take into consideration various factors to ensure the intended meaning of each phrase by the author.

We’re heading back to Europe now with Luis Molina writing about Spanish translations of Christie and the consequences of translating a novel using another translation…

Spanish Christie 1Reading Agatha Christie not in her original language has a few problems, the first being the title changes when translated into Spanish. Some of which seem fairly logical such as The Murder on the Links, becoming Murder on the Golf Court and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, becoming Death Calls on the Dentist, but there are some more confusing ones such as N or M? becoming The Mystery of Sans Soucy. Of course if you love Christie, you´ll read them, but the intention behind the original title is lost.

Mariana Orozco-Jutorán (a translator at Universitad Autònoma de Barcelona), has written an excellent article called ‘Agatha Christie Translated into Spanish through French: A Different Author?’ As the title suggests, the journey of Spanish Christie 2translating Christie’s novels into Spanish, has been a circuitous one. ‘Spanish translations of Christie were introduced in to Spain in the 1940s, and at that time almost all literature that came into Spain was translated from French. French was the most widely spoken foreign language in Spain, practically the only foreign language, and thus it is no wonder that most of the literature translated at the time was based on French translations, as if they were the originals. However, this was not mentioned at all in the books, where the reader could see “title in English…, translator…..”, but no reference whatsoever to the fact that it had been translated from French instead of English. This is still true of the most recent re-editions’ (Orozco-Jutorán, 2001: 3).

For example, in And Then There Were None, in the Spanish translation, the murderer lures Miss Brent to her death by asking ‘for a ‘cousin’ to go to the Spanish Christie 3island’ (Orozco-Jutorán, 2001: 9), rather than the fact that she has been lured by the promise of a free holiday. ‘Therefore, logically, the reader thinks that the person writing to Miss Brent is her cousin. However, this is just because the translator has misunderstood the French translation’ (Orozco-Jutorán, 2001: 9) of the murderer’s letter which discusses the amenities on the island such as having simple but good cuisine, translating cuisine as ‘cousin’ instead of cooking. Other translation inaccuracies include the word rumours being translated as ruidos (noises) and ‘the last section of the first chapter introduces Mr. Blore, who in the Spanish translation is incomprehensibly called Mr. Blove all throughout the book. In this section we can find two examples showing once more how the Spanish reader is deceived. Blore is the only character that knows who all the other guests invited to the island are because he has been ordered to bring them there. The first example is when he counts them, thinking of their names Spanish Christie 5 (they are nine in total, since Mr. Blore himself is the tenth victim) and then notices a drunk man in the corner of the carriage and uses the expression ‘had one over the eight’ to say he’s drunk. Unfortunately, the French translator, and thus the Spanish translator, who keeps translating literally from the French, have misinterpreted this expression and once again defied logic and common sense in the novel by saying that there is one more person than he had expected… This, of course, does not make any sense, and the reader must feel confused when, later in the novel, s/he discovers that the people in the island are exactly those supposed to be there’ (Orozco-Jutorán, 2001: 12). Moreover, in my personal experience, I have read Christie in English and Spanish and in the book Five Little Pigs, one of the clues was “I’ll send her packing”. But as I read the book in Spanish the translation was “She made him his bags” and I lost an important clue that would explain the murder.

To finish our exploration of Christie in translation, Xavier Lechard is going to share with us about Christie in French and once again it seems like And Then There Were None, has fallen a cropper…

[Spoiler Alert for those who haven’t read And Then There Were None]

Agatha Christie’s French publishing history is inextricably linked with the beginnings of the publishing house, Le Masque, with her first book to be translated, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, also being the very first book to appear under that imprint. While it was not a spectacular debut commercially speaking, (it took more than five years for the first edition to go out of print), Christie became Le Masque’s most successful writer and remains so as of today. She is by far the biggest-selling crime writer in France, which is said to be her second best market after the United Kingdom and before the United States.

French Christie 1

But the focus of this article is on translations, right? So were they good? Has Christie been treated well by French translators? Well, to answer those questions requires taking context into account. French publishers long regarded crime novels as sub-literary and thus not worthy of the respect (sometimes) granted to “literary” works. Translations reflected this, often being botched, abridged (a paperback had to be 200-250 page and everything deemed “unnecessary” had to go) and in some cases rewriting the original text. Christie was no exception to this sad rule, though she suffered rather less from it than some other big names. Still, the damage done was grave enough for Le Masque to finally commission new translations in the Nineties.

French Christie 2

I discovered Christie with the “old” translations and being at the time a monolingual teenager whose main interest was in plotting, found them okay. Even then, however, I was able to see that something was wrong. The characters, even accounting for the era, talked like no one I knew did. Some passages seemed rushed, unidiomatic or grammatically dubious. The most jarring example however was found in And Then There Were None. The murderer plans to shoot himself, making his suicide look like a murder. Yet in this translation the method was unfathomable, even after multiple readings: How was the revolver supposed to be removed from the killer’s hand? I found out years later that the translator had “compressed” the passage in question, leaving out the essential information needed to make it comprehensible! The “new” translations have their own issues; lack of fluidity and elegance, but then Christie’s prose was never stellar to begin with, but at least they are truer to the original and unabridged, and you no longer need a PhD to understand the murder methods. 

French Christie 3

Final Note

I hope you have enjoyed finding out about other readers’ experiences of Christie in translation and I would like to give a big thank you to all my contributors, who made this piece possible. Don’t forget to share your own experiences of reading Christie in translation in the comments section below.

Advertisements

About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Christie in Translation: Your Experiences

  1. JJ says:

    It sounds like Christie in translation has fared only slightly worse than Christie on television (which – ahem – is, one supposes, simply another type of translation…)! Changing the characters, altering the murder methods, changing backstories…in fact, maybe some of those Suchet Poirots were adapted from these foreign editions…

    It does raise the far more interesting point of just how much damage is done by slapdash or unfaithful translations. We trust that we’re getting what we should, but one remembers the story of the translator not understanding the solution to Christianna Brand’s Death of jezebel and so making up their own nonsense one. I appreciate that’s less likely these days, but are there any classics translated into English where this could have happened…?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well I think the Joan Hickson adaptations of Miss Marple are probably some of the most faithful adaptations of Christie on TV, but then again I think we all are still trying to recover from the BBC’s Tommy and Tuppence adaptations of last year. As to dubious English translations, the only text I can think of (but I’m sure there are more) is Emile Gaboriau’s The Blackmailers, as in my introduction to that text, it talks of an anonymous (e.g. translator unknown) translation of the text into English in 1875 which ran ‘to 145,000 words [and this]… English translation was literal and rather cumbersome.’

      Like

  2. mikehobart says:

    The Folio Society edition of JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH has an interesting introduction by Michael Crichton which discusses the indignities committed by Jules Verne’s translators — some of them not only left out Verne’s stuff but put in new stuff of their own.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. JFW says:

    Reading this post makes me thankful for the crew at Locked Room International, insofar as the solutions to Paul Halter’s puzzles must be quite challenging to translate coherently – and yet I’ve not had any problems so far.

    I must say that I quite enjoyed trying to guess the titles to the translated Christie novels based on the covers you provided. I was slightly puzzled as to why ‘Halloween Party’ was given a graphic befitting of ‘Phantom of the Opera’. One of the covers for ‘Roger Ackroyd’, I’m sad to say, seemed to me potentially unhelpful – in fact, it could be really unhelpful.

    I’ve not read any Christie in translation, as I only read mystery novels/ Kindaichi manga/ Conan manga in my second language if there aren’t any versions in English. Which was why I was frustrated to discover that Ho Ling would be releasing English translations of ‘Decagon House Mystery and ‘Moai Island Puzzle’ – as I had spent many prior to the release of his translations sourcing for copies in Chinese.

    As for Christie’s prose – I actually think she can write quite elegantly. In any case I feel she writes more smoothly than Carr tends to…! *dodges bullets*

    Liked by 1 person

    • JJ says:

      Even as a massive Carr fan I can’t dsagree with this – Christie’s prose remains far the smoother and easier to read for the uninitiated; you really have to “get” Carr – his gothic foibles, his love of the sinister, his ability to switch moods in the length of an adjective – before you can relax into his writing in the way Chritie’s expression enables pretty much from the get-go. And I can understand people not willing to put in that effort, even if they are missing out on the best!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes organising this post has certainly made me more grateful for having read Christie’s novels in English and also made me more appreciative of the skill that goes into creating a faithful translation of a story. I also agree with you on the ease of reading Christie’s prose.

      Like

  4. Brad says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Kate! Bravo to you, and thanks to Xavier, Shahrul, Luis, Stefano and Stefan for their information. Sure, reading a translation where nothing makes sense would be terrible, but we’re dealing with something bigger here! Christie excelled at using the subtleties of language as clues throughout her career. The killer leaving the scene of the crime in Roger Ackroyd? The confusion over names and spellings in A Murder Is Announced? I’m glad these fans persevered through faulty translations to find “true” Christie. Being monolingual myself, I’m at the mercy of translators, and this has been for what critics call “legitimate” fiction. The problems here were only exacerbated by the dismissive tone so many of these cultures have taken in regards to classic detective fiction. I wish that Japan, which reveres GAD, would translate more of their works into English, but Kate’s crew has shone a light on why this may never happen. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes the vast majority of the credit must go to my contributors. I have learnt a lot doing this post as well as I never realised before what external factors influenced translations for example and it makes me wonder what factors in the past may have influenced English translations of novels from other languages.

      Like

  5. richmonde says:

    “Christie’s prose was never stellar to begin with”?? Objection! I got about halfway through Madame McGinty Est Morte before turning back to the English, but as far as I could tell the translation was brilliant – substituting English colloquialisms with French ditto. Which made it very hard to follow, especially when Spence was talking. But I’m sure it improved my French. (“You never see her writing.” Nancy Banks Smith)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. cmikolj says:

    What a fascinating post this was, and many thanks to all the contributors for their efforts in putting it together. I think that one of the reasons Christie’s books have remained popular for so long is their sheer readability, which has obviously transcended the vicissitudes of translation! I also read a piece a while back (can’t remember the source, sorry) which suggested that Christie’s prose had a certain rhythm to it which made it easy to read and more likely to hold the reader’s interest. Certainly I think she was very good at writing natural sounding speech – her plays were very popular in her heyday and some still remain popular today, of course.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. What a great idea, beautifully executed. Full of fascinating detail – I particularly like the idea of Mrs Oliver lowering herself.
    The piece is a real contribution to Christie studies – bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. nbmandel says:

    Thanks for collecting these reports. I too was intrigued by the essay on Christie in Hungary.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Book of the Month: May 2016 | crossexaminingcrime

  10. Pingback: Christie Firsts | crossexaminingcrime

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s