Stieg Larsson’s three books in the Millennium series have the following titles in Swedish: Män som hatar kvinnor, Flickan som lekte med elden, and Luftslottet som sprängdes. I do not know whether these were the titles Stieg Larsson himself gave his books or titles that the Swedish publisher came up with – I can’t recall ever having seen any information about that.
However, I have been pondering a little the titles given to Stieg Larsson’s books in England and the US. The English language titles shift the “meaning” and message about the books quite a lot compared to the original Swedish titles.
Let’s first look at the literal translations of the Swedish titles and the English titles: “Män som hatar kvinnor” would, translated directly, become something like “Men who hate women”. In English it is entiteled “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. “Flickan som lekte med elden” translates into “The Girl Who Played With Fire”. And indeed, that is the English title! And “Luftslottet som sprängdes” translates into “The Castle in the sky that was blasted apart” (approximately). The English title is“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest“ (see What is the name of Stieg Larsson’s third book and the comment from the translator Reg Keeland).
So, one of the books have retained it’s original Swedish title – “The Girl Who Played With Fire“. But two books have been given relatively different titles: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”. These titles signify a considerable shift in focus, in terms of the “marketing message”. The focus in all the three books is now on “The Girl .. “, meaning that Lisbeth Salander is the focal figure for people reading it, and to some extent indicating it’s a series of crime fiction books or thrillers with a female main character – possibly a female James Bond – for potential readers looking at the titles.
But in Swedish the titles indicate that the books are about men hating women, a girl mixed up in something possibly too complex to handle, and some elevated structure being exposed or blown apart. That is actually significantly different.
You could, of course, say that names don’t matter all that much, and why bother? Well, I happen to think that names matter a lot – that’s why artists take on artist names, why corporations spend millions on finding just the right name for their products, and so on. And to my mind, the names chosen for the English translation of the Millennium trilogy reposition and reframe the books in a manner which I think is very unfortunate and probably not at all beneficial for the sales of the books in the English speaking world.