Netflix’s new movie, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is a bit of a tongue-twister, and even its characters know it: “Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful,” says one, when confronted with the words on a page. The film borrows its clunky title from Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ beloved novel of the same name, about a fictional book club on the Nazi-occupied island of Guernsey. That book club is created by accident after a handful of islanders hold an illicit dinner party featuring a dish made with the only ingredients available to them: potatoes, potatoes, and, of course, their peels. When they’re confronted by German soldiers for breaking curfew, the revelers pretend they’ve been reading, and so the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is born.
That’s a fine name for a fake literary gathering, but as a title, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is cumbersome and a little bit twee, which is probably why the movie was being shopped around at one point under the shortened title Guernsey. When it came time for the film’s release, however, the filmmakers restored the unabridged name, perhaps out of a newfound appreciation for long-winded titles in the spirit of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Or maybe they realized that hooking the book’s fanbase by using the original title was more important than trying to broaden the movie’s appeal. Either way, Netflix, which is distributing the film in the U.S. and other regions, is leaning into the absurdity.
But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is just the story’s English title. The book is a worldwide phenomenon, and now the movie is poised to follow suit, which has required tweaking the moniker for overseas audiences. In some cases, this is as simple as translating the title exactly (at least, as exactly as the language barrier will allow) and the results are as delightfully wordy as the original.
In Italy, for example, you’ll find yourself watching Il Club del Libro e Della Torta di Bucce di Patata di Guernsey, or, literally, The Club of the Book and of the Cake of Peels of Potato of Guernsey.
The Portuguese- and Spanish-language titles will similarly leave you out of breath by the time you reach the end of them: respectively Guernsey - A Sociedade Literária da Tarte de Casca de Batata and La Sociedad Literaria y del Pastel de Cáscara de Papa de Guernsey.
The Polish title, Stowarzyszenie Miłośników Literatury i Placka z Kartoflanych Obierek, is another mouthful, but it could have been even longer than it already is, given that it leaves out the society’s location.
Google Translate interprets the Chinese title, 納粹鐵蹄下的密函情書, as the perplexing Love Letters Under the Nazi Iron Hoof (though frankly, it’s not all that much more perplexing than the English-language original). When I asked a Chinese speaker about the phrasing, she explained that that the “iron hoof” is more literary than literal, a symbol of military oppression, and that a more nuanced translation might be The Secret Love Letters Under (the Influence) of the Nazi Occupation. That title is still somewhat misleading, given that the letters in the movie are exchanged after the occupation has already ended, but she points out that it stands a better chance of appealing to Chinese audiences, who are unlikely to be familiar with Guernsey.
In some other countries, translators have found ways to refer to the film that won’t leave locals gasping for air. A bookstore worker in Reykjavík told me that the novel’s Icelandic title, Bokmennta- og Kartöflubökufélagið, translates roughly to Literature and Potato Pie Club, which is still an unmanageable number of syllables but at least saves considerably on cover space. France has done away with all mention of tubers in its version, leaving the more dignified title Le Cercle Littéraire de Guernesey, or “The Literary Circle of Guernesey,” using the French spelling for the island’s name, as is appropriate. Belgium and the Netherlands have taken a similar route, except they didn’t bother with a translation at all, just a truncation of the English version: The Guernsey Literary Society.
It’s Germany, however, that wins for the most creative title alteration. Its version of the film does away entirely with any mention of Guernsey, literature, letters, societies, or potato peel pies. Rather than humor that kind of whimsy, the film has simply been renamed Deine Juliet, or Your Juliet, which is how Lily James’ character signs off on her letters.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus