Translating Herztier

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May 14, 2015 by AK

I was going to write about a Russian’s author’s reaction to Herta Müller‘s Herztier but did not get far past the title. Literally, it means “Heart-beast.” The German Wiki entry claims it is a rendering of a Romanian neologism, inimal = inimă + animal, but it’s not the title of the Romanian translation.

Herztier looks similar in formation to a number of German words, such as Herzblut (lifeblood; mit H. = passionately), Herzblatt (darling), Herzeleid (heartache, heart’s sorrow, the name of Parsifal’s mother and of Rammstein’s best-known album), Herzenstrost (heart’s consolation), and Herztod (death of a heart attack). At first it may seem that it refers to a savage, beastly heart, but from what I have read, the underlying concept is different: the heart’s inner animal. For there is an animal within every human heart, and the beast’s nature is the essence of its host.

The Russian title, Serdtse-zver’, is a literal translation that probably communicates the wrong idea: it denotes a beastly heart rather than the heart’s resident beast. Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart became The Heart-Denouncer (Serdtse-oblichitel’) in the canonical Russian version. It works well, with “denouncer” modifying “heart.” But then by analogy, “beast” is understood to modify “heart” in Heart-Beast. Not good. I would consider dropping the hyphen and spelling the title as Serdtsezver’. Alternatively, why not calque the Romance versions (excluding Italian): La bête du coeur, Animalul inimii, La bestia del corazón?

The English title, The Land of Green Plums, is rooted in the text but is no match for the original. (It also became Il paese delle prugne verdi in Italian, rather than La bestia del cuore.) First, it speaks of the external, of the setting, of the environment. Second, it has an unintended comic undertone, with a hint of Borat or, more charitably, of Buñuel’s mocumentary Tierra Sin Pan. In its late years, the Soviet Union was sometimes called the country of evergreen tomatoes: that’s what one always found (or no tomatoes at all) in state-owned groceries, in contrast to farmers’ markets. That’s not what Müller had in mind.

But it could still be the best of practicable options.


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