Thursday, November 18, 2010

At Long Last Fit and Lean! Or, Lost in Translation in Germany

About two years ago, I had some correspondence with a woman in Germany who expressed interest in publishing Slow Fat Triathlete in German. She had been having some trouble getting in touch with the right people at Da Capo, so I put her in touch with someone and thought no more of it. So I was startled to receive the following email from my editor a couple of weeks:

"Jayne, please see below - ok by you? Thanks and hope all's well-- R

-----Original Message-----
From: TJ
Sent: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 8:02 AM
To: RS
Subject: RE: SLOW FAT TRIATHLETE by Jayne Williams

Hi Renee,
Could you check with the author to see if this title is alright? I think it makes sense and we usually encourage authors to trust the publisher that they have the best interest of the book in mind.

From: AF
Sent: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 6:38 AM
To: JS
Cc: IA
Subject: SLOW FAT TRIATHLETE by Jayne Williams

Dear Jennifer,
Further to my last email correspondence concerning this agreement of 05/08/2008 I am pleased to announce that the publisher finally confirmed publication of the German edition for January/February 2011. They would like to change the German title to:
ENDLICH FIT UND SCHLANK - SO ERREICHEN SIE IHR ZIEL which translates back into English as:
At Long Last Fit and Lean - This Is How You Reach Your Goal

A literal translation of the original could be misunderstood and could deter potential buyers. I agree. Please let me know whether I may give them the thumbs up for this title.

All best

Hmmm.... Really? At Long Last Fit and Lean???? This Is How You Reach Your Goal???
I think NOT. I mean, c'mon, man! Does the world need another diet and fitness book? Do the Germans? My instinct in all things writerly is to turn to my friends Will and Anne. Conveniently, Will is Chair of Modern Languages at Boston University and teaches courses on translation from German to English. Anne is the best writer I know and also speaks excellent German.

Here's some of what I got back from Will:
Holy Crap! What idiocy.(...)

Back to why this is a hard query to answer: it does seem possible that the effectiveness of "slow fat triathlete" as a title really does depend on all sorts of cultural particulars that won't transfer to Germany. Some forms of Anglophone irony, and self-ironizing stances, are not so readily perceived by Germans, in my experience; and while "slow fat triathlete" isn't exactly irony, the Germans' failure to understand this title seems to me a related point somehow. There's also a cultural earnestness to the whole topic of "Wellness" (yes, that's a German word) in Germany that may be working against you here (since doubtless the German publisher means to have you shelved in the "Wellness" section) and a slightly different relation to fat and fatness -- German cheeses are still promoted in supermarket PA announcements by how very high their fat content is, for example, and obesity is thought of there as a typically American problem. At the same time there is a giant industry of healthy foods and health regimes, and doubtless dozens of prior books titled "'Endlich fit und schlank" have sold very well. I'd expect that the culture of races and tri clubs is noticeably different in Germany too; don't Germans have a much sharper sense of whether or not they belong to an organization than Americans do? I always feel like there's much less room there to drop in and out or just show up at events without further commitment, though maybe it's changed in the world of sport. Anyway it's all very complicated and I am certainly not one who understands it all."

One solution for the title might be for you to find or adapt a phrase from your book or marketing blurbs that is straightforward, that really means what you believe -- the subtitle, e.g., would be great except that it's too long and translated imperatives can stumble over the du/Sie problem -- and we or they could try to translate that, whatever it is. (Incidentally, it seems awkward that you are 4-5 e-mails removed from the people who are trying to decide on the German title -- no chance you could get into some more direct discussion with them or their representative?) Or if straightforwardness is disappointing, find something snappy/funny but whose snappiness seems likelier to be exportable than "SFT" is. Letting go completely of the English title is a good first step -- Germanizations of English film and book titles very frequently lack any connection at all to the original titles, and you have to start from zero. It's an interesting challenge. But it's extremely hard for us to solve without knowing a lot more than we do about German body culture, self-improvement culture, humor, images of athletes, book sales in this sector, etc. etc. The fact that we can't know even a fraction of what we need to know makes me think the best way might be something that is a little more straightforward and less witty than you would usually like to be but at least represents your book accurately.

Or Anne can just come up with a zingy German title that slices clean through these Gordian deliberations!


PS The "Ihr Ziel" in the Awful Title's subtitle is, as you remember, the formal "Sie" form for "your goal." The tone of your book is so much about friendly informality that on me the "Sie" grates almost as much as the main title. There are many books addressing readers as "du," humor books especially, and I'd hope yours will be one of them. But this really is so contextual that we may not have much sway (if, e.g., Wellness or Fitness books are 100% "Sie" by convention).

PPS I'll be teaching my German translation workshop again next year and I'll have to use this as an example for discussion. Too rich.

I am starting to realize that this post is going to have to be continued, as it was quite a long dialogue. However, I found it so amusing and interesting that I really want to share the whole flow of it with y'all. So stay tuned for Anne's zingy suggestions and further discussions of what a couch potato is in German.


  1. I agree that "Living your Athletic Dreams in the body you have now" is much more accurate title. The other one seems like the opposite of what your book is about.

    But even just Living your Athletic Dreams is better than what they cooked up!

  2. Jayne,
    An aquaintance just emailed me a link to your blog which I'm really enjoying.

    Two and a half years ago after witnessing a friend finish her first triathlon, I was inspired to do the same and vowed to myself, and out loud to my friend, that I would participate with her in the same event the next year. My friend later admitted that she was hopeful but skeptical at the time that I would make it. I was clinically depressed, carried nearly 240 pounds on my 5'5" frame and hadn't run in 30 years except to catch a plane or a bus. But seeing over 4000 other women finish the Danskin sprint tri, many of whom were heavier, older or in worse shape than I was (a blind and deaf woman finsished that year!), was key to me accepting myself as I was and stop making excuses for staying unhealthy and miserable.

    The experience was incredibly empowering and fun! I built closer friendships to several women in my life, especially the friend who originally inspired me. I never set out to lose a single pound but I lost nearly 80 pounds and have kept them off. My body became more than just something that carried my head around. I did complete the Danskin Tri the next year, 12 minutes under my goal of 2 hours. Since then I've finished another tri, a half marathon and several 5k and 10k runs. This coming season I want to finish an Olympic distance tri and a 2 1/2mile swim across Lake Washington here in Seattle.

    I know I'll never be an elite athlete. This fact poses no disappointment for me. I am motivated by feeling active and healthy, having more energy, a generally up beat mood and being engaged in the world as a complete person, not just a mind.

    Now to why I chose to comment on this particular post: I lived in Germany for nearly 3 years and speak German fluently. In the past two decades the über-fit German norm has changed. They haven't as a nation reached the American obesity statistics, but there are more over-weight Germans than ever before. They do still see themselves as fit though I believe. They are also as a society more rigid as to associations and which peg fits into which hole. I had to laugh when I read the suggested German title and how incredibly misplaced it was. I haven't yet read your book (but plan to now) but I get a sense of it from your blog. I agree with your friend that the informal "Du" is a more appropriate pronoun to reflect your voice. Perhaps something like "Akzeptiere Deinen Körper und sei fit" which means, "Accept your body and be fit". A little dry but might resonate with the German reader more than the self-depricating humor.

    I'm curious to read what the final title will be and look forward to reading more of your blog and book.

    Seattle, WA