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.
Unfortunately, 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 Orient-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!
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…
Reading 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 translating 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 island’ (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 (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.
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.
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.
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.