Usage of articles in the titles of paintings

Hello, everybody.

My question is related to translations, but it's not about translating a certain word or anything like, it's rather about the grammar. The situation is as follows: I'm currently translating into English a big text for a book about a modern Russian artist. This is my first experience of translating multiple names of paintings, and some of them made me think about how I should actually construct them grammatically.

How is it with the English names of paintings? For example, should a still life be called Japanese Vase or A Japanses Vase? Should the painting be called Portrait of a Woman, or The Portrait of a Woman? I'd say I'm really good at choosing articles in normal sentences, but with titles it's a bit of a problem. I never really have doubts whether to choose a definite article or an indefinite one, but to decide whether to use an article or not to use it at all is a problem. Is it completely up to the artist, or are there some more or less accepted standards?

Also, am I right to assume that all the meaningful words in the title (that is, all the words except articles and prepositions) should be writted with a capital letter?

Thanks for the help in advance. I'm hoping to get an answer soon.
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  • #3
    Umm.... The original names are in Russian. Russian doesn't have articles. But it doesn't mean that you can always omit articles when translating from Russian. That's why I'm asking. It's the same as if I was the artist and I was inventing the name for my painting, I don't known whether I should use articles in English in this case.


    Senior Member
    American English
    Ah, I see the problem. I would omit the articles in your two examples -- Japanese Vase and Portrait of a Woman -- but that is personal preference based on what I would do if I were the artist. I like the more general, less specific, feel to these titles without articles. That opinion might change with a different name, though. Let's take the case of a book title: The Rape of Nanking. I would want the article there.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    The choice of articles or no article in titles is generally arbitrary. You would have to know what was in the artist's mind.

    Japanese Vase - a Japanese vase chosen at random from many examples probably because (i) it was convenient and/or (ii) it appealed to the artist.
    A Japanese Vase -
    An example, probably typical, taken from many Japanese vases.
    The Japanese Vase -
    (i) the definitive example of vase of Japanese origin or (ii) the Japanese vase that is associated with some commonly known event/person/history/style/etc. (iia) used where the painting is really famous: "The Mona Lisa" "The Sunflowers" "The portrait of Whistler's Mother."

    The safest and commonest way of titling foreign works, where there is no indication of either the article or the artist's intent, is to omit the article.


    Senior Member
    English - American
    This surely cannot be the first time such a quandary has come up. Are there existing books in English that describe Russian paintings where you could search for a consensus on whether to use articles or not?

    This Wikipedia article on Russian Painters seems to include articles in picture names frequently, but not always.

    If you do find such books and arrive at a conclusion, please post a follow-up in this topic for the benefit of future researchers.
    Well, I looked through such resources. The conclusion I'm coming at is that mostly it's up to the artist. However in some cases I feel that some article is necessary, then I try to to choose it, accroding to the classical criteria of using articles, like PaulQ mentioned. It's just that sometimes it's difficult to choose, because there are only shades of difference between them when it comes to titles. Say, the recent movie The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, its title could easily be with an indefinite article or maybe even without an article at all, yet a definite article is used. I can't say it makes a world of a difference though.

    I'm now more or less sure that paintings called Portrait of... are used without any article before portrait. But as for still lifes (can they be called nature morte in an English text by the way?) it's a bit more difficult. Probably absence of any article is preferable.
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    Senior Member
    English - American
    I am assuming that most of the artists never translated their titles into English. Most of the English translations we see were made by English speakers who probably had to make their own decisions.


    Senior Member
    British English
    Say, the recent movie The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, its title could easily be with an indefinite article or maybe even without an article at all, yet a definite article is used. I can't say it makes a world of a difference though.
    That is a perfect example of where the definite article is essential. There is only one girl with a dragon tattoo, so she must be the girl. In the case of paintings, there has to be a definite article if the picture is of something well-defined. If somebody painted the Great Gate of Kiev, the painting could not be Great Gate of Kiev or A Great Gate of Kiev, it must be The Great Gate of Kiev. On the other hand, a painting of a pastoral scene would just be Pastoral Scene or Cattle by The Volga. It would be unusual for still life (no, not nature morte) to have the definite article - there's nothing specific about a vase of sunflowers.
    ukraininan, Ukraine
    Hello! I have a related question. The name of the painting is Fashion-plate, painted by Richard Hamilton. When I say Richard hamilton painted Fashion-plate in 1969, is it correct? Or can I say Richard Hamilton painted the Fashion-plate? The problem is when searched the Net I found both for Mona Lisa. So I am a little bit confused. Thanks in advance.


    Senior Member
    British English
    No article with Fashion-plate. It's the same as most works (books, paintings, films), they don't, generally, have the definite article unless it is part of the title.
    Star Wars but The Trouble with Harry.
    The Lady of Shalott but Lady Windermere's Fan.

    The Mona Lisa is a special case. "The Mona Lisa" is not the title of the painting. It's title is "La Gioconda" and an alternative Italian title is "Monna Lisa", which becomes "Mona Lisa" in its English spelling. It seems to be "the" Mona Lisa simply because of its fame.