East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Neo-mythology: Translating the peplums

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The true problem, of course, is that I get mortally bored when I translate something I wrote. I think it is because I already know how the story is going, and so there’s no fun in translating it. But we’ll talk about this later. Maybe.

Because you see, considering that right now about 90% of my Amazon income comes from English-language sales, I’ve been thinking about translating some of the things I published in Italian, to see how they would work on the international market.
Right now I’d like to give it a try with my Asteria series of sword & sandal novelettes, but here I crash against two problems.
The first, as mentioned above, is the fact that I find translating myself mindbogglingly boring.
The second is the matter of the titles.
Which brings us to Maciste – or Samson,or The Son of Hercules, as it was sold in the US of A.

The Asteria stories were written1 to test the viability of a “peplum” format in narrative.
The peplums were those muscle-men moves, loosely based on mythological subjects, that Italian cinema produced in the 1960s. As Wikipedia remarks

The terms “peplum” (referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films) and “sword-and-sandal” were used in a condescending way by film critics. Later, the terms were embraced by fans of the films, similar to the terms “spaghetti western” or “shoot-’em-ups”. Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi called the genre “Neo-Mythology”.

And you’ll admit that neo-mythology is pretty cool.

In peplums, Maciste (a hero originally created for the movie Cabiria, in 1914) was recycled as sort of a wild card character: he would appear in various times and places, to fight evil.
I decided to use the same format – a globetrotting, time-hopping character, in what amounted to a sort of two-fisted fantasy Quantum leap.
But not a musclebound, loincloth-wearing guy – but a lithe, gray-haired amazon.
I worked hard to avoid the Xena/Red Sonja clichés – I wanted to write a woman, not a man with boobs, and the first two stories had a discreet success.
The link with peplum movies was so direct, the second Asteria story lifted its title directly from a Maciste movie: Asteria alla Corte del Gran Khan.

And here is the rub – because the 1961 movie featuring Gordon Scott in the titular role, Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan was distributed as Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World.
My little inside joke, completely spoiled and defused.
And indeed a lot of peplums were distributed in English changing the character name, and Maciste became Samson, the son of Samson, Hercules, the son of Hercules, Goliath and Atlas.
I sometimes wonder – did the English titles work better than a simple translation of the original?
Maciste and the Queen of Samar became Hercules Against the Moon Men, while Maciste, Gladiator of Sparta turned into The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules.
And what about Maciste in the Valley of the Kings turning into Son of Samson?

Other peplum heroes had it even worse, preserving their name but changing location just because,  such as in the case of Goliath at the Conquest of Baghdad turning into Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus.

So right now I’d like to start working – slowly, because I have other things to do, and because it’s boring – on Asteria’s first outing, Asteria alla corte di Minosse.
But Asteria at the Court of Minos sounds lame.
Of course, I could stick to tradition and call it Barbarella versus the Mole People, and then write a witty afterword to explain why there are no mole people in the story…2
Granted, I could call it Asteria versus the Minotaur, and at least it would be correct from the contents point of view, but the idea was to have the first four books with Asteria visiting some famous sovereign’s court: Minos, Temujin, Luis XIV and Montezuma.
Change the first title, and you have to change them all.

And I know it sounds silly, but until I settle the title thing, I won’t start translating the books.
It’s a trick, of course, because I know it’d be a boring job.
Ah, problems, problems…

  1. are being written, in fact, sort of – I have two other here on my hard disk, written and never published, and in need of a revision. 
  2. but what the heck, Asteria versus the Mole People is a damn fine title, as is Asteria in the Valley of the Queens, and I think I’ll use them sooner or later. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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