Miles Kington: French titles give me the yellow dog blues

"L'Education Sentimentale translates as 'Sentimental Education. But it's not that at all

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What worried me was that I don't think dogs are ever really yellow. I can visualise brown dogs, and light brown dogs, and very light brown dogs, but I am not sure that they ever reach the colour of bananas. Not that "The Banana-Coloured Dog" would work as a title. But I do not think I would be happy with The Yellow Dog either, if I were to translate the book into English. And yet when they broadcast an adaptation of the very same story on Radio 4 after I got back, they called it The Yellow Dog and obviously didn't have a moment's unease about it.

That's why I could never translate a French novel. I would never get beyond the title. Recently Radio 4 also did a dramatisation of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. What a brilliant description of teenage longing the book is. And what a grim title to try to translate. The main character is a lad called Meaulnes, and the title simply means "Big Meaulnes".

It's not unknown to have books named after the main character, with a size added, even if Little Dorrit is the only one I can think of off-hand. But no one is likely to buy a book called "Big Meaulnes", which is why it has also been variously translated as "The Lost Domain", "The Wanderer" and "The End of Youth". In Germany, apparently, it is retitled "Der Grosse Kamerad", or "the Big Friend".

I did ask the producer of the radio adaptation, Sara Davies, if she had experimented with English translations of the title, but she said it would be madness to alter the original. Wise woman. There are other famous French titles of which this is also true. Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe. Huis Clos. Les Miserables. All calmly left in the original. Madame Bovary, too. It could be rendered as "Mrs Bovary", but ...

(If Flaubert was clever with the title of Madame Bovary, he wasn't so clever when naming L'Education Sentimentale. The title translates naturally, and wrongly, as "Sentimental Education". It's not that at all. We use "sentimental" as the adjective from "sentimentality" (meaning "sickly sweet emotion") but Flaubert is talking about "sentiment", which is something quite different, being "feeling". If anything, the book should be called "The Education In Feeling", or "Learning How to Feel" ...)

Still, if I believe there is no such thing as a yellow dog, it makes it hard to explain why the title crops up so regularly. Martin Amis has written a book called Yellow Dog, which, through skilful life management, I have not had the pleasure of reading. Walter Mosley has written an Easy Rawlins mystery called A Little Yellow Dog.

WC Handy published a blues in the 1920s called Yellow Dog Blues, which he claimed to have picked up from an itinerant black worker in 1903, whom he heard singing about "Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog ..." The "Southern" was the "Southern Railroad", and the "Yellow Dog" was another railroad, perhaps the Yazoo Delta, which had the same initials as Yellow Dog ...

And, most exciting of all, I have discovered a listing for the following source book:

Yellow Dogs, Hushpuppies, and Bluetick Hounds: The Official Encyclopedia of Southern Culture Quiz Book (ISBN:0807845922)

It is published by the University of Mississippi Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

I cannot help feeling that were I to possess that book, total enlightenment would be mine.

I also have a strange feeling that that day will never dawn.

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