Translating Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

This week I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out which literary monster mashups had been translated into which languages, as well as how and by whom. This turned up all kinds of interesting information – for example that Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters are the most widely translated (which I sort of expected), and that other languages have their own original monster mashups (which I didn’t). Another interesting bit of data I turned up is that mashup translators often approach the comic mixing of styles and genres in a way similar to mashup artists like Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters, or Sherri Browning Erwin: they turn to an older version of the canonical text in their own language.

Literary translation is challenging enough on its own. What happens when you’re not only dealing with an author’s style, but another translator’s as well? The following is an excerpt from a blog post by the Dutch translator of Pride en Prejudice en ZombiesMaarten van der Werf, who had previously translated work by Karen Armstrong and Edward Said. I’ve transposed it into English and reposted it here (modified with links and images), with the gracious permission of both the author and Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookshop:

The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.
The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.

‘A lot of people thought it was a kind of sacrilege – that someone would dare to tackle a classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that way. That was the reason I got the job: the person who was originally asked didn’t think much of the project, and approached me instead. Since I’m not averse to iconoclasm, and also enjoy the odd brush with ninjas and swords, I decided to take the job.

In spirit, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a parody: Austen’s narrative has been adjusted and bits have been added, though the storyline and text remain largely unaltered. Naturally this doesn’t hold true everywhere, starting with the book’s opening paragraph [Dutch translation here]:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.

The Victorian [sic] setting has been changed slightly: England has been stricken by a zombie plague. The undead keep multiplying, immersing the country in an ongoing struggle for its very existence. The renowned Bennet sisters have also been recruited to the war, which they wage with flint muskets and Oriental combat techniques. The result is hilarious, because the fuss about whether or not Elizabeth will marry the mysterious Mr. Darcy remains largely intact. Emphasis on “largely”.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

As Seth Grahame-Smith – the evil genius behind this project – made changes and additions to the original story, I too worked in an older translation of Pride and Prejudice [Trots en Vooroordeel, published in 1980 by L.J. Veen and translated by H.E. van Praag-van Praag]. I changed what Grahame-Smith had changed, translated what he had added, and also made a passing sweep through the original translation, which needed some modernisation. I had to be careful not to get too enthusiastic with this last step, because the somewhat worn, old-fashioned language added to the book’s feel, and could even be turned up a notch in places. The parts I translated myself had to fit in with this language, so I could go to town with dowdy words and phrases. I enjoyed myself immensely – and as I worked I found myself appreciating the original work more and more.

Of course, reactions to a book like this are mixed. Some consider it a waste of every drop of ink used to print it, or are upset because they feel you can’t maim a classic like Pride and Prejudice this way. I think Asten’s story can take it: the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for all the jokes made about it. I’m also sure a lot of people will find it incredibly fun. They can look forward to more fun as well, because Sense & Sensibility & Zeemonsters is already out, and Android Karenina and Jane Slayre may be up next for translation into Dutch.’ [Maarten van der Werf, 2010]

'“My dear girl," said her Ladyship, "I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy."'
‘“My dear girl,” said her Ladyship, “I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy.”’

Five years down the line, there is sadly still no Dutch translation of either of these texts, at least to my knowledge, though the trend has definitely continued in other languages. I would be particularly interested in seeing how a translation of Android Karenina would work in practice, given that the version of Anna Karenina used in the English mashup is already a translation: a highly influential (if controversial) 1901 version by Constance Garnett.

I’m guessing there’s a whole other post’s worth of material in why Jane Austen’s work is the most popular target of this kind of adaptation on a global scale, but I’ll leave that for another day – and possibly another blogger. In any case, I’m now definitely in the mood for some Austen indulgence. Anyone have any opinions on 2013’s Austenland, or that recent Matchmaker card game? If all else fails there’s always Bridget Jones’s Diary on Netflix.

3 thoughts on “Translating Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

  1. You mention the 2013 Austenland, is there a reason you’re directly heading to the film rather than the 2007 novel? I must admit I haven’t seen the film though I did read the novel recently. I’ll add a *warning, spoilers* message now: the only intriguing thing about the book was the double layer in it (protagonist thinks she’s escaping Austenland and having a ‘real’ affair with a ‘real’ guy, but in fact such a ‘package’ is part of what Austenland offers, for those who find all the nineteenth-century hoo-ha a bit much and prefer having a bit of fun with someone in jeans rather than tight breeches). Other than that I found it rather boring, with an unsurprising ending (after you’ve gotten over the shock of the ‘fake real world’) where the Darcy-figure in breeches following her out into the real-real world and all ends happily ever after. But the double-layer thing raises some interesting questions: how far do we want to go when it comes to our immersion in the nineteenth century/Austen’s world/any historical period or fiction? What happens when we think we break down the novel-equivalent of the fourth wall but in fact there is a fifth?

    • Honestly, I went straight to the film version because I’ve got enough reading on my plate for the moment. I didn’t really expect either version to be more than a tired and traditional romcom, but I may actually have to give both a look now that you’ve brought up the theme of fan immersion and expectation (as it relates to our cultural objects).

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