Book covers (1): transformed in translation

Covers of "Birdsong", by Sebastian Faulks. UK version (left) and Chinese version (right)

“Birdsong”, by Sebastian Faulks. UK version (left) and Chinese version (right)

A recent Observer newspaper article warns us,

Don’t judge a book by its cover, particularly in France.
Books are routinely given completely different covers abroad, often with baffling results.

This doesn’t just apply to foreign language versions. When I lived in Rome and shopped at the Lion Bookshop, I was often surprised at how different the US versions of my favourite books were from their UK counterparts. Not just in cover design, but in paper quality, size, and overall look and feel.

If you buy a book because it’s had a good review or is a new work by one of your favourite authors, then it isn’t the cover that prompts your purchase. But on the way from bookshelf to till, other books, maybe by authors you’ve never heard of, will be laid out temptingly. Whether or not you pick them up, leaf through them and decide to buy will initially depend on their cover design. The same goes if you’ve just popped into the bookshop for a leisurely browse.

"Wolf Hall", by Hilary Mantel. UK version (left) and US version (right).

“Wolf Hall”, by Hilary Mantel. UK version (left) and US version (right).

Booklovers tend to think of books as “special” products, but for publishers and booksellers they’re commodities to be marketed and sold – a process in which branding, packaging (covers) and cultural adaptation play a part. Genre publishing has its own visual language – you can usually tell at a glance that a book’s a crime novel, historical romance or family saga. But literary fiction doesn’t have that visual shorthand, so the cover has a more subtle and complex job to do.

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", by J K Rowling. UK version (left) and Italian version (right)

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, by J K Rowling. UK cover (left) and Italian cover (right)

I don’t know enough about Chinese culture and reading habits to comment on the Chinese cover of Birdsong (pictured top right), other than to say I find it mystifying. The UK and US Wolf Hall covers (middle) are clearly related – but cousins rather than siblings, I think. The more opulent US version has more visual clues that it’s a historical novel – the Tudor Rose is maybe too obscure a historical reference for American readers (and for many British ones too!).

As for the Italian version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, what were they thinking of? Why the tastefully muted (dull) colours? Where’s the magic and the adventure? It’s over-intellectualised and alienating and reminds me vaguely of De Chirico: Metaphysical Melancholy for Kids. Of course, the publishers weren’t relying on the cover to sell this book. But surely they could have given it more child-appeal – more fun.

I have to confess that I do often judge a book by its cover. I like book covers – good ones are part of the pleasure of reading. We had a mini clear-out in January and gave some of our books to Oxfam. Some books I know I’ll never give away. But when I was undecided, it was usually the cover that clinched it. With some John Fowles novels I’d had for at least 25 years the spines, black in colour, had cracked. Their coarse paper had yellowed and smelled fusty. So out they went. If I want to re-read John Fowles, I’ll buy his books new or borrow them from the library.

With Mary Hocking, though, I made a big mistake. I had no memory at all of the novel I picked up, or even of whether I’d enjoyed it. But I so disliked the cover (and, I’m deeply ashamed to say, the photo of the author) that the book, published by Virago Press, went straight into the clear-out box. A couple of days later I discovered another Mary Hocking, published by Abacus this time, and with an attractive cover that invited me to re-read and re-discover this novelist. But it was part three of a trilogy… part one of which was by this time on Oxfam’s bookshelves.

So the Observer’s right: it’s unwise indeed to judge a book by its cover, no matter what language it’s designed in.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. In the month it took me to read Wolf Hall (savouring every word, mind) I kept wondering where I had seen the cover before. Finally it hit me – it is a homage to the famous WWII “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster. A reference which describes Mantel’s Cromwell quite well.

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