It seems that the Portuguese translators of The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency are not the only ones to take liberties with Prof McCall Smith’s title. In French it comes out as L’Agence No 1 des Dames Détectives, though this is not used as the title of the book, which is the distinctly lame Mma Ramotswe Détective.
It’s perfectly in order to reject a slavishly literal translation, but why are the free translations of book titles often so banal? In this case, given that French is widely spoken in Africa, surely it would have been possible to find something with the same charmingly quaint flavour?
Things are even worse in Spanish, where La 1a Agencia de Mujeres Detectives (“The First Agency of Women Detectives”) surely destroys the very point of the title. Not only is there an endearing swagger about the “Number One” bit, there’s also the gentle humour characteristic of McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe’s is not just the first or best, but the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, so there’s no denying it’s Number One.
Some years ago, in the line of duty, I had reason to read several popular works of light fiction line by line against their translated French-language editions, and it was an eye-opener. You would think a bestselling title might deserve a decent translator, who is probably not much more expensive than a semi-competent one, but no. It was usually as much as the poor sap could do to puzzle out the literal meaning more or less intact, without any attempt to convey the humour or tone of the original. Many a time you could picture hands thrown up in despair at something the poor translator couldn’t make head or tail of — mais c’est vrai ce qu’on dit, les Anglais sont fous ! — and see the whole mess being swept under the carpet. Just make something up, no-one will notice and we’ve all got bills to pay (which is true enough).
One book, much in the Bridget Jones genre of the carefree 1990s, was set among idle rich types who host American-style “pool parties” in the summer, the kind of people who think it amusing to refer to champagne as shampoo, or “poo” for short. The translator, perhaps picturing the country house parties of a century ago, took this to refer to endless games of billiards — more Brideshead than Beverly Hills. How horrified those trendy socialites would be by the confusion with the low-down white-trash game of American pool!
“More ’poo, anyone?” brays one of the toffs. The translator is stumped at first. She knows English food is de la merde, obviously, but surely this person cannot be literally offering his guests helpings of excrement. Then suddenly light dawns: it’s a misprint! Ah, ces Anglais — the irresistible urge to knock coloured balls around a green baize table-top is still not sated. “Anyone for another game of pool?”