What's in a name? If it's The Eternonaut, it's a lot.

eternonaut coverThe graphic novel I translated a few years ago is in production, and coming out with Fantagraphics (swoon) next year. It’s an amazing work by the phenomenal Argentine author Héctor Germán Oesterheld, illustrated by the incredible Francisco Solano López. I’m so excited to see it brought out in English, I can barely contain myself. And for the most part, I’ve received some really great feedback on the translation and my advocacy for the work. But there’s this thing that has come up before, a few years ago when I published a few excerpts of the work in Words Without Borders. It’s about the title.

The work in Spanish is titled El Eternauta. It’s a neologism in Spanish, combining the root eter with the suffix -nauta. -Nauta is pretty easy, it’s a cognate, and it translates as -naut, as in astronaut or cosmonaut. Those are the two that first come to mind to me (and I’d bet most people), though this handy Wikipedia article lists a myriad of others, including hallucinaut and my new favorite insult for academics, jargonaut. It’s the eter that makes it a little complicated to translate. Well, that, and homophonics, which I’ll get back to briefly. Eter translates literally as ether, but shares a root with eternidad which translates literally as eternity. So the root plays double duty in the Spanish neologism, referring simultaneously to the ether (as in the invisible substance that was once considered an element, through which invisible waves like light and radio travel) and eternity. Fitting, since (spoiler) the titular character ends up traveling through both time and dimensions. And according to the rule-book of super-literal translation, since eter actually means ether, the language-police-approved right-and-only way to translate it should be The Ethernaut.

For me, that posed a problem. Say it out loud. It’s uncomfortable in English, and uncomfortably close to ethernet, which isn’t very superhero-y. And the language police weighing in on this one in comment threads (I know, I know, don’t feed the trolls) must instinctively agree with me on that, because it’s not the “correct” title that’s been proposed. What this commenter, and some very vocal others, have preferred is an Anglicization of the Spanish neologism: The Eternaut. So just lopping off that final vowel, that telltale Spanish syllable, makes it an English neologism. And I think neologism for neologism is the way to go, at least in this case. But say it out loud. Really, do it. ETER-NAUT. Did you say it “eat-or-not”? Because that is just absurd. Especially if you’re not constrained by literalism, which this neologism isn’t because, as we’ve already learned, eter means ether not eternity.

When I was working on this, one of the several neologisms in the story, it was all abstract. I was thinking about this with other translators, comics scholars, and writers. It was a fun puzzle, playing out the various choices that could be made, figuring out how to coin a neologism in English that approximated the sound and intent of the Spanish. It’s through that kind of play that many difficult translation choices are made. And the great thing is that there is an argument to be made for or against any of them – that’s part of the joy of translating for most if not all of us who work as literary translators. It’s not direct equivalences that delight translators, it’s the knotty problems that we get to work over and over on.

In the end, I chose The Eternonaut. I borrowed the “o” from astronaut and cosmonaut, the two most recognizable -naut words in English, and made a neologism. It loses something of the ether, but gains a Cold War context that I find poignant and interesting and appropriate. And I knew, especially after the response on fan forums after I published some of my initial excerpts from the work, that it would be a potentially controversial choice. But after going over the possibilities, and the reasoning again, I still think it’s the best one. Or at least, it’s the most in line with my aesthetic preferences. And as the translator, that (and a lot of good dictionaries, some local informants, and native speakers) is what I have to guide me.

I’m curious, though. What do others think? And, most importantly, why?

5 comments

  1. nasuanelsoni@gmail.com

    personally, I’m inclined towards “eternaut” even while I understand your choice of “eternonaut.” For me, it works at the aural level. I hear the “e” in the title as much closer to the “e” in “element” than the “e” in “eons.” On top of that, I find the “nonaut” veering towards cacophony. For what is worth, Spanish, of the argentine variety, is my first language. And since I do translation work, I also sympathize with what you do. In the end, you are not going to please everyone. It happens.

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  2. Tony

    It seems Fantagraphics has changed his mind and the final title will be THE ETERNAUT. At least that’s the title that appears now on their webpage and also on amazon and other sites.

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  3. @Tony Yeah, what’s great about literary translation, at least to me, is that it’s full of options. Choices. There’s rarely a single right way to translate even the simplest thing (and those who tend to think so tend to have not thought very seriously about translation, language, meaning, context, metaphor, figurative speech, poetics, etc.). And so having these conversations with other engaged readers and thinkers, and discussing the different choices one might make, is almost as exciting as actually making the choices, at least to me. 🙂

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