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A book by any other name: why does the US change so many titles?

13 September 2018

From The Guardian:

There was widespread reaction when the Philosopher’s Stone in the title of the first Harry Potter book became the Sorcerer’s Stone after its US publisher, Scholastic, decided that children might confuse wizards for Plato.

But hordes of books have had their titles changed in America. Disproportionately, they are mysteries. Twenty-five Agatha Christie titles have been “localised” but unfortunately, their new names do not add to their allure. Instead, they merely baffle Brits who, when buying Murder in Three Acts or Poirot Loses a Client on vacation, discover they are Three Act Tragedy or Dumb Witness in disguise.

Naturally, book titles change from country to country. Altering the first Potter adventure to Harry Potter a l’Ecole des Sorciers in French is far less baffling than what was done to its American counterpart. Some localisation is to be expected: if you’re translating the text, why not change the title to match? But, with the UK and US sharing a language, why change titles?

Sometimes publishers themselves don’t know. For example, Hitler’s Scapegoat by Stephen Koch will be released by Counterpoint Press in the US next year as Hitler’s Pawn. I asked their publicity manager why, but she wasn’t sure and said the editor didn’t know either. Ask the Brits, she suggested.

Then there’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, a Stuart Turton novel renamed The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in the States because, apparently, Americans die more frequently. When asked about the change, US publisher Sourcebooks initially joked: “Our editorial team decided to supersize it.” We’re lucky Christie’s Three Acts wasn’t upgraded to 3¼ or – horror of horrors – Tragedy 3.0. After all, this is the country that slapped the title Little Women II on Louisa May Alcott’s Good Wives.

Link to the rest at The Guardian


14 Comments to “A book by any other name: why does the US change so many titles?”

  1. In the hopes of better sales.

    Can’t remember, but there’s a Ford model whose American name translates to ‘No Go’ in Mexico (I mean that it’s nice that they warn them ahead of time, but really … 😉 )

    ((Plus we have the really strange types over here – they have no problems watching blood and guts in a movie – but a nipple blows their little minds!))

    (((Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have been suggesting DAZ to people as you have to add a figure to the scene before you can apply hair or clothing – eh, who am I kidding? Writers are made of sterner stuff than that! 😛 )))

  2. Dumb Witness seems an obvious choice for changing the title to me, unless the ambiguity of the word “dumb” in American dialect would provide an intentional double entendre that represents the story. It doesn’t, in this case, so changing the title makes perfect sense. Remove the ambiguity of what you mean by “dumb.”

    • I agree. But based on the cover shown in the article, “Dumb Witness” might have worked, because the skeleton makes it obvious dumb = silent. But I often saw Christie’s books with covers that didn’t have illustrations, just small graphics at best. Without the skeleton the title doesn’t stand on its own, so it had to be changed.

      With books, sometimes the title has to do the heavy lifting (of grabbing the reader’s interest), and sometimes it’s the illustration. It’s nice when they work together, but if the publisher is foregoing an illustration then the title will likely change when it can’t stand on its own.

  3. I can sort of see why “scapegoat” was changed to “pawn.” Scapegoat suggests a completely innocent person was blamed for something Hitler did. You could frame someone to be a scapegoat. However, a pawn may be unwittingly used, but they have to be at least peripherally involved in a situation in order to be a pawn. Otherwise, I have no idea what the publishers were going for.

    The only other title change I can think of that made perfect sense was changing “Men Who Hate Women” to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” No one would ever read the former, and the latter suggests an interesting character who will do interesting things.

  4. It’s not just imported books… I’ve been reading some 1950s/1960s mysteries lately, and checking the author pages on places like isfdb. Some stories were originally printed in magazines under one name, then reprinted as standalone books under another name, and yet another new name at every printing, best as I can tell.

    • The practice is over 100 years old and and very common.

      Some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories were renamed when brought to books from the magazines.

      Under the Moons of Mars became a Princess of Mars back in 1917.

      Lots of successful authors have had their books retitled (and often editorially mangled) because the publishers thought they knew better. And because they coukd.

      Sometimes they do but most often the original title is a better fit.

  5. I was perplexed when GRRM’s The Dying of the Light became After the Festival, but both titles would have worked. I just hoped for a second book where there wasn’t one.

    It is a marvelous read in either case.

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