Thursday, July 28, 2011


The other day I read about the Williamstown Theater Festival presenting Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which title is used again and again even though it is wrong. I have waged a campaign, to no apparent avail, on behalf of the correct A Doll House. Not calling the play that is a serious mistake.

Ibsen’s point is that the husband, Torvald, has turned his wife, Nora, into a doll—not a full-fledged human being, but a plaything for himself. Their house is like that still popular toy: a miniature dwelling with a doll as its miniature mistress.

Now if you call the play A Doll’s House, you make Nora the proprietress, in command, which is precisely what Torvald and the mores of that time would not allow. The house is Torvald’s, the husband and master’s, and the play might accordingly be called A Doll Owner’s House. Ibsen’s true meaning is conveyed only by A Doll House, without the apostrophe and the final S, i.e., the possessive case. Other languages have translated it correctly. Thus in German it is Ein Puppenheim, a doll house, rather than Heim einer Puppe, a doll’s house.

This somehow led to speculation about title mistranslation and manipulation in general, most significantly of the titles of foreign films, a particularly nefarious practice. They are the ones with which the crassest liberties are taken, in most cases to lure people in under falsely provocative pretenses.

Ingmar Bergman alone has been the victim of numerous mistitlings. Take the film that first brought me to Bergman, but almost deterred me by its American title, The Naked Night, which doesn’t even make proper sense. Still, it made me think that it was yet another of those Swedish sex movies in which lovers go skinny dipping and the camera lingers pruriently on the heroine’s naked body.

Of course the film was nothing of the sort, although it does contain a very different instance of nude bathing, appalling rather than alluring. The actual Swedish title is The Clown’s Evening, which has several meanings, not least the twilight or downfall of the circus artiste, but perhaps also of other than circus people, stultified in their private lives. The British title, Sawdust and Tinsel, is nearer the mark, because there is in the film a bitter conflict between a man of the circus and a man of the theater.

Consider now the retitling of The Face as The Magician. True, the protagonist is a magician of sorts, but what is more important is that he is in disguise, as is his lovely wife, for safety’s sake disguised as a male youth. But their true faces are revealed, making a vast difference, and implying that all art is a kind of disguise, salutary in some ways, but not the bare truth. The Magician may sell better than The Face, but it derails the viewer’s attention.

Similarly, The Communicants was retitled as Winter Light. Yes, it does take place in a snow-bleached Northern winter, but the film is really about communion with the Divine and communication, or lack thereof, among humans. They try to communicate and commune, but with only mixed results. There are wintry hearts in the story, but light, if any, comes only in a very ambivalent ending. The title change reflects the striving to avoid narrowly Christian implications, but is its vagueness any kind of real gain?

Much more objectionable is the turning of the Swedish for A Passion into The Passion of Anna. That could suggest a woman in heat, whereas the film deals with the very different passions of the four principal characters, inviting also thoughts of Christ’s passion. Altogether it evokes the conflicted and conflicting  passions of all humanity, which the changed title cravenly bypasses.

To be sure, Bergman is not the only one to suffer from mistitling. Take Ermanno Olmi’s wonderful Il posto (the job), about two young persons’ desperate need to find gainful employment. In English, it became The Sound of Trumpets, from an almost throwaway line in the dialogue, but having nothing to do with the plot. It has since reverted to its original Italian title, yet again eschewing simple literal translation. Why could it at no time become The Job?

This calls attention to a more recent trend, the retaining of the untranslated original title, usually Italian, as in La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura. I Vitelloni, La Notte and many others, presumably on the assumption that people could figure out the meaning while also basking in the newness, the exoticism of the foreign title.

At other times there was literal translation, albeit foreshortened. Thus what was in the Italian The Nights of Cabiria became a mere Cabiria, perhaps gambling on the suggestiveness of that mysterious foreign word. On the other hand, I can understand the decimation of Lina Wertmuller’s yard-long titles. So it is that Swept Away by an Unusual destiny in the Blue Sea of August became the terse Swept Away. Even more frugally, Film of Love and Anarchy, or At Ten o’Clock This Morning at the Via dei Fiori in a Well-known Brothel was preshrunk into Love and Anarchy, superb films regardless of titular tribulations. But was even the witty Everything Orderly But Nothing Works needful of condensation into All Screwed Up, conceivably because of a far-fetched suggestion of screwing?

However, there are also cases where a literal translation was retained, but not making much sense in English. So with Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, where in French this means painting the town red, but the English of The 400 Blows means nothing at all. Then there are the tiny, inconspicuous changes, as with that Ibsen play, which nevertheless are misleading. Why would DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves become The Bicycle Thief, when there are at least two characters to whom the title refers? I can see why Rossellini’s Paisa (homeland) was changed to Paisan (homeboy), because the latter had some resonance even for Americanized Italians. But the film is not about a single person; it is about Italy under German occupation.

I could go on and on, but what’s the use of griping? Why in a dishonest world should titling be an exception? But flagrant error, as in Doll’s for Doll, should not be tolerated and prevail. I was once invited to a Midwestern production of the Ibsen play with a seductive note about how my title correction was scrupulously observed. Even so, I didn’t attend. There are matters even more important than fiddling with titles.


  1. Titular mischief, bad. Vocal desecration, criminal.

    Recently a dubbed version of Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA was televised in Chicago. Because Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) is mute throughout the film except at one key moment, I tuned in. Maybe it wouldn't be bad. Wasn't: it was pure torture. Alma (Bibi Andersson) had the voice of a dysphoric teenager throughout.

    Jorge Luis Borges wrote film criticism, reviewing KING KONG, THE INFORMER, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and even CITIZEN KANE, which he described as "...not intelligent, though it is the work of genius -- in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word." His take on dubbing from 1945:

    "The Greeks begot the chimera, monster with the head of a lion, with the head of a dragon, with the head of a goat; the theologians of the second century, the Trinity, in which the Father, the Son and the Spirit are inextricably joined; the Chinese zoologists the ti-yiang, supernatural auburn bird with six feet and four wings, but no face or eyes; the geometricians of the twentieth century the hypercube, a four dimensional figure that encloses an infinite number of cubes and is bordered by eight cubes and twenty-four squares. Hollywood has just enriched this inane teratological museum; by means of a malign artifice called dubbing, they propose monsters which combine the illustrious features of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo.

    "Those who defend dubbing reason that the objections that are made to it can also be made to any other example of translation. This argument is ignorant of, or ignores, a central defect: the arbitrary insertion of another voice and another language. The voices of Hepburn or of Garbo are not contingent; they are, for the world, one of the attributes which define them. It should also be remembered that gestures are different in English and Spanish.

    "More than one spectator will ask himself: Since they are usurping voices, why not also faces? When will the system be perfect? When will we see Juana Gonzalez playing the role of Greta Garbo playing the role of Queen Christina of Sweden?"

    Jorge, we have arrived. Coming soon to a theater near you: George Clooney playing Clark Gable playing Rhett Butler and Natalie Portman playing Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND 2.0. Fiddle-dee-dee!

  2. Joe Carlson,

    I think directors like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers have been doing that kind of curd-skimming for years. It's no longer Art imitating Life for them: it's Art imitating Art (where the former is furniture craftsmanship). I'm not sure if that's what the MGM motto meant...

  3. Points well taken butas someone who actually saw the Williamstown production of A Doll's House, the titular mischief is nothing in the light of the mischief done to this and other classic plays by directors who create stage images that visually turn a playwright's meaning on its head.

    In the case of director Sam Gold's problematic production the most egregious mischief was in the final husband and wife confrontation which took place in the Helmer living room instead of the kitchen so central to Norwegian middle class life. That confrontation was painfully drawn out with Torvald sort of massaging himself with a golf club. But worse still, when Nora (a wonderful Lily Rabe) realizes that her marriage is hopeless, she exits down a staircase (which a good portion of the audience can't see) and quietly, almost inaudibly, shuts the door behind her. Instead of the famous slamming door, the final image and sound comes from Torvald angrily smashing his golf club into the couch. In short, the play which belongs to Nora, no matter what the title, has been handed over to the undeserving Torvald.

    Perhaps in a future blog you can talk about directors reinterpreting a play with visual mischief.
    To read Curtainup's review of the Williamstown production of A Doll's House go here.

  4. At first, I thought that I couldn't imagine why the American translators would insert the apostrophe-S. Surely, A Doll House is suitably "correct" in telegraphing the tyranny of a Man over his Woman as Victim (a topic near and dear to their feminist cockles). But then I realized: adding the apostrophe-S "empowers" Nora, by making the prison hers. Never mind that this ironically only deepens the Stockholm Syndrome implied. Revisionists (particularly of the politically correct flavor) are too busy seeing anew to notice what they are doing.

  5. Actually, Naked Night works in a way. Souls are bared in the night, especially with the fat guy who gets beat up.

  6. I suppose it could have been worse: A Fistful of Doll's House.

  7. "Ibsen’s point is that the husband, Torvald, has turned his wife, Nora, into a doll—not a full-fledged human being, but a plaything for himself. Their house is like that still popular toy: a miniature dwelling with a doll as its miniature mistress."

    Is that really the point? Or, is the point that Nora feels herself to be a mere doll? Is the play more sociological or psychological? Was Ibsen saying society is really repressive toward women or that the new woman FELT repressed in the traditional or respectable role of womanhood? And couldn't one say the husband too could have felt as a 'doll' or Ken doll because he too must conform to social mores--like the guy in Age of Innocence?

    The husband is not such a bad guy and doesn't see his wife as a mere doll. He sees her as a valued wife. It is Nora who feels herself to be the doll. Today, we have women with great wealth and privilege but they feel 'oppressed'.
    I think A Doll House is more about a state(and space)of mind than actual social reality.

  8. What's in a name? Suppose Bergman had chosen the title 'Winter Light', which then was changed to 'Communicants' for foreign release. We can make a compelling case as to why the former is better than the latter.
    What can a word or a couple of words really say about a movie or novel?
    True, some titles are more meaningful than others. Citizen Kane would sound silly as Guy Named Charlie. And Dirty Harry would sound ridiculous as Harry and His Big Gun. But a word or couple of words can be read and mined for endless meanings. Magic Mountain could be the Mann book but could also the title of Lord of the Rings.
    Btw, Passion or Passion of Anna, it really should have been called Confusion.

  9. It just occurred to me, rather late in the game here, that -- at least according to The American Heritage College diction•ar•y -- "dollhouse" is one word, not two.

    This makes the mistranslated variant about which Mr. Simon complains even odder, because the transgressors thus are not merely adding an apostrophe-s to one of the words; they are also going further to split the one word apart into two in order to do so.

  10. "Much more objectionable is the turning of the Swedish for A Passion into The Passion of Anna."

    On every print that I've seen, the title is neither 'En Passion'/'A Passion', nor 'The Passion of Anna', but rather 'L 182'.