Friday, November 6, 2009

Owls don't weep; they screech

The title of Janet Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry is taken from a phrase written by William Shakespeare. Frame quotes the passage from The Tempest several times in the course of her narrative:

WHERE the bee sucks, there suck I:

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I couch when owls do cry.

On the bat’s back I do fly.

After summer merrily:

Merrily, merrily, shall I live now

Under the blossom that hangs on the

The ambiguity of the word "cry" (meaning in English both "weep" and "screech") means that some people assume that Frame's owls are sobbing. I am pretty sure that owls don't cry tears. They HOOT.

I recently noticed that the French translation of Owls Do Cry, LES HIBOUX PLEURENT VRAIMENT, has been mis-named, contrasting with the more correct German translation WENN EULEN SCHREIN. The French owls appear to be blubbering, but the German owls are piercing the night with their calls.

Of course I have always thought it must be a nightmare translating Frame, when sometimes one can't even get past the title without wondering whether there is a deliberate play on words in it.

FYI "Owls Do Cry" was not Janet Frame's first choice of a title for her novel. Her working title was "Talk of Treasure". When this title was rejected by her publisher, she strongly advocated for the title "BETWEEN THE FLAGS", from her observation of the obsessive carefulness of conformist provincial society:

"the Woollen Mills, the chocolate factory, the butter factory, the flour mill - all meaning prosperity and wealth and a fat-filled land; and lastly a photograph of the foreshore with its long sweep of furious and hungry water [...] where you cannot bathe without fear of the undertow, and you bathe carefully, as you live, between the flags."

It was my discovery - in the course of archive research - that Frame had wanted to call her novel "Between the Flags", that led to the rediscovery of one of two "lost" Owls Do Cry manuscripts. Frame had written "Between the Flags" on the cover and so that document had been overlooked in searches for the original OWLS typescript.

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