If you’re lucky enough to find success as a novelist, I imagine there is no greater feeling than having your work translated into a whole new language. Knowing that your book is now available to people all across the world has to feel very empowering. However, the work of a translator is more of an art than a simple procedure of changing an English word into a German one. Understanding the mood of a piece, adjusting names, and jokes are all important duties for a good translator and not easily translated. Books that are smooth reads in their original language can become stiff and leached of their soul when translated. In a wonderful essay on the art of translation, Charlotte Mandell calls this “turning the text into Something Else but Still the Same.” I also recommend reading this piece on the site Literary Hub with ten translators talking about some of the challenges and triumphs involved in changing books from one language to another.
All of this leads me to Mick Herron. Herron’s work has been published in German, Dutch, Spanish and more. In 2016 John Murray Ltd bought the UK and Worldwide rights to the series, excepting the US which remained with Soho Press, and began selling them to foreign publishers. Most appear to have gone with relatively straightforward translations of his novels.
All that is, except for the translator for the Italian edition who decided to take a bit looser approach. I don’t know if Alfredo Colitto came up with the translated titles for Slow Horses and Dead Lions, but they are completely different from the English versions. They still manage to be really striking and if not better, at least as strong as the originals. In 2018, Slow Horses became Un Covo do Bastardi which translates in english to A Den of Bastards. That’s a great title and completely captures the mood of the book. Slough House is the resting place of the unwanted screw ups of MI5 and calling it a den of bastards is as appropriate a term as any other.
Late last year the next book, Dead Lions, was released in Italian. The same translator remained in place and the it’s called In Bocca al Lupo which translates to “into the wolf’s mouth” and is used similar to “break a leg” as a way to tell someone “good luck,” especially in the theater. The normal response is “crepi il lupo” or “may the wolf die.” Again, it’s a title with multiple meanings. The slow horses or “brocchi” as they are called in Italian, which is apparently a term typically used to refer to crummy sports players, are literally facing Russian wolves and you can easily imagine Diana Taverner shaking her head and wishing Jackson Lamb a ironic “Good Luck!”
It’s an interesting look at some of the challenges involved in translation and the differences between a word for word translation versus a translation that is attempting to capture the spirit of a novel.
A Google translation of the book descriptions for the Italian versions of Slow Horses and Dead Lions –
Un Covo do Bastardi (A Den of Bastards), 2018
They call them “brocchi”. They are Jackson Lamb’s men, a flock of losers, of crippled horses. A slew of alcoholics, drug addicts, misfits, people who, at some point in their lives, took the wrong turn and derailed, messing up everything. They are the secret agents of series b, those of which intelligence is ashamed, agents chewed and rejected out of the system because stained by some indelible fault and now parked away from Regent’s Park in a kind of prison for bankruptcy, to carry out inane labors of Sisyphus – endless checks of old telephone directories or dusty paperwork – waiting for them to wear themselves out and let go of the blow. Except that none of them stopped dreaming of returning to active service. When a Muslim boy is kidnapped, with the threat of beheading him live on the web and on all the news, broccos sniff the occasion to redeem himself. The kidnapping is part of a much more complex plan and it will be neither easy nor risk-free and victimless to thwart it. However, Jackson Lamb knows all too well that there is always a cost to pay and that the world is full of losers. Soon new ones will come to fill the ranks of his team.
In Bocca al Lupo (Good Luck), 2019
If you’ve been a cop once, you’ll be forever. Applies to Jackson Lamb and his men, “the Brocchi”: a pack of secret agents that intelligence has dismissed because they had made some unforgivable mistakes or cultivated too much a vice, but never managed to completely cripple them. And it’s true of Dickie Bow. An old lion, who also grew up in the “zoo” in Berlin during the Cold War. A shadow capable of infiltrating everywhere, of following its target for months and stealing its secrets. At least until he is found dead on a bus near Oxford. Jackson Lamb was with Dickie in Berlin before the fall of the Wall. And now he owns his cell phone and his latest secret, as well as suspecting that someone is devising an old Soviet-style operation right in the wolf’s lair, in full London and under the nose of the secret services. The perfect opportunity for redemption for Brocchi.