French translation help: L'Ombre Chinoise

This is the title of an Inspector Maigret mystery by Georges Simenon. Penguin is coming out with new English-language paperback editions of all his Maigret mysteries, and so far they have ignored previous English-language titles and have been translating the French pretty nearly exactly (as far as I can tell).

For this one, the English title they have chosen is “The Shadow Puppet.” This seems quite different from the title alone (although it might be supported by the actual contents of the book, I don’t know because I haven’t read it yet). I would have guessed “The Chinese Shadow” or “Shadow of a Chinese Person”. Google Translate makes it “China’s Shadow” which I doubt is what Simenon meant.

So how would you, fluent French-speaking (or at least French-reading) person, translate this title? Bonus points if you’ve read the book so you know what the title is supposed to refer to.

I don’t recall much of the French I learned at school, but The Shadow Puppet seems to be a pretty good translation.

It’s a little bit like translating “Chinese jump-rope” out of English. Yes, it’s etymologically and literally “The Chinese shadow,” but it’s the way you would say “The Shadow Puppet” in French, and a perfectly straightforward translation.

It’s a play on words which doesn’t actually translate well. I expect that not only are shadow puppets involved but also opium, the other Chinese shadow.

Ah, thank you, I never would have come up with that on my own.

I would just translate it as “The silhouette,” which is both consistent with what my French dictionary has, and with what I imagine Simenon is alluding to here. I haven’t read this particular novel, but I’ve read a fair number of the other ones, and* ombre chinoise* is usually used in the sense of a silhouette, particularly as seen against a window blind, from the exterior.

I wish someone would pay me to translate a Maigret novel. I’d be over the moon.

Even though Ombre chinoise sounds more poetic than Shadow Puppet, that is really what it is. Les ombres chinoises sont faites avec les mains et une source de lumière ainsi qu’un écran. So ‘‘silhouette’’ is not quite the thing.

I envy you, please share other tidbits with us. Once upon a time, a friend of mine was translating some of Colette’s work, and I enjoyed our little problem-solving chats.

It’s a pity there’s no perfectly good French word for silhouette.

very slow clap

On the other hand, my dictionary gives “silhouette” as a synonym for “ombre chinoise.”

If you want to argue that “silhouette” is not specific enough as a translation, I would agree; and yet, at the same time, “shadow puppets” is really over-specific. The problem is that ombre chinoise is a bit of imagery that is a relatively common and readily understood in French, while “shadow puppets” is not nearly as widely used in English. A French-speaker reading the phrase “en ombre chinoise” would instantly form the correct mental picture, while an English-speaker, confronted with the analogous “like shadow puppets,” would likely go, “Huh? Puppets?”

I would really like to get a copy of the book and see what it’s about, because we’re confronting the title in isolation here, not really knowing the relation to the plot and whatnot. (And in fact I was in Montreal this afternoon, and dutifully tried to get a copy, but of all the dozens of Simenon novels on the shelf, this was not one, alas.)

The Wiki article sez the book was translated into English as The Shadow in the Courtyard and Maigret Mystified, if anyone wants to read it and offer an opinion.

Here’s a website of someone who has compiled all the different English-language versions of Maigret novels and stories, including translations of three stories that were never published in print. It doesn’t include the current series from Penguin.