Stop the Monkey Planet, I Want to Get Off

Have you seen the new Monkey Planet film?

The what?

Monkey Planet! You know the ones with the talking monkeys. That guy’s in this one, what’s his name, James Franco. It’s pretty good.

Monkey Planet!?

Yeah, you know the first one, it’s from the 60s, with the astronauts and they crash land on a planet with talking monkeys!

Are you ok?

Monkey Planet, it’s a classic, how do you not know it!

You’re talking nonsense, I’m leaving!

Monkey Planet!! Ah, putain, attend, en anglais c’est Planet of the Apes!

Monkey Planet. Beneath the Monkey Planet. Escape from the Monkey Planet. Conquest of the Monkey Planet. Battle for the Monkey Planet. Tim Burton’s ill-advised Monkey Planet remake. Rise of the Monkey Planet. Dawn of the Monkey Planet. Untitled Monkey Planet Sequel.

How many of these films would you like to see (Battle for the Monkey Planet sounds like it could be good fun to be honest)?

They might all sound like fun, but aren’t they lacking the grativas of the title Planet of the Apes? It’s a good thing that the film’s producers went with that title then. But that wasn’t always the case…

The novel La Planète des Singes was published in 1963, and written by French author Pierre Boulle. When it was published in English, the title was translated as Monkey Planet. In 1968, the film adaptation Planet of the Apes was released, and another five years later, English editions of the original novel were renamed Planet of the Apes.

monkey planet

Original Penguin edition cover

Looking back now, with our knowledge of the classic status of the original film (and the one with James Franco is pretty good) and being used to the title Planet of the Apes, it seems a bizarre choice to translate the French title into Monkey Planet. It just sounds so silly! But there’s a logic to it.

First of all, the word singe in French can mean monkey or ape. The language doesn’t really distinguish between the two to the extent that English does (though, as a sidenote, I get a bit annoyed when people refer to chimpanzees as monkeys: they’re apes! I know it’s very pedantic, but the general rule is: apes—bigger, no tail; monkeyssmaller, tail). Which makes me wonder if French speakers think of apes and monkeys differently than English speakers, but that’s a thought for another day.

So maybe the people deciding on the translation didn’t actually read the book, and just translated singe to monkey, because he probably meant monkey, and, whatever, apes and monkeys are the same thing anyway, right!? Or, they read the book, understood that it was about apes, but decided that Ape Planet would sound too much like A Planet, and people wouldn’t be very interested in reading a whole book just about a planet that the title doesn’t even give any details about!

A Planet!? I already live on a planet, why would I want to read about one?

So why not consider Planet of the Apes then? Well, perhaps they did, but in English that construction is usually very formal. In fact, overuse of the noun + of + noun structure is one of the most common errors for speakers of romance languages to make in English. Someone might say I’m going to the house of my friend after class, which is strictly grammatically possible, but in class I’d always get a student to figure out that it’s much more natural to say I’m going to my friend’s house after school. Or they might say I’m going to the stadium of football instead of football stadium. Whether we use a possessive form with ‘s, or make a compound noun, English speakers tend to prefer a shorter form, as noun + of + noun generally sounds too formal for our ears.

So Monkey Planet seemed like a logical choice. Perhaps someone suggested Planet of the Apes or Planet of the Monkeys, but that surely seemed too grand for a funny little science-fiction novel about a planet full of apes. But then along came the film adaptation, which is quite a sophisticated film about evolution, hubris, the tensions between faith and science, and the separation of church and state. And talking apes. Doubtless then, the producers decided that Monkey Planet sounded too trivial for a serious, thoughful piece of science-fiction, and decided on Planet of the Apes instead. Which I think was the right choice. Who knows, maybe if the film had been called Monkey Planet we’d have got used to it and would think of it in the same way, but I find that hard to imagine. It just doesn’t have the weight of Planet of the Apes.

It’s an interesting case in terms of the potential perils of translation. Yes, Monkey Planet probably seemed like a logical choice for a strange, obcsure French sci-fi novel when the book was translated, but it doesn’t really capture the essence of the book. Even when choosing between different seemingly-identical forms within English, there’s a big difference between the ones we choose. On paper Monkey Planet and Planet of the Apes might seem identical (assuming people aren’t as pedantic as me about distinguishing between apes and monkeys). And in terms of their basic meaning, they are. But the senses they create, their tones, are quite different, and leave a very different impression on those who see or hear them. It goes to show that a) there’s more to languages than simply what words or phrases mean: tone, sound and feeling are also so important; and b) you shouldn’t necessarily listen to your teacher (even if it’s me) when they tell you that native speakers usually prefer to use a possessive ‘s or a compound noun instead of a more formal form. Because sometimes you want to be poetic, and then only the most elegant of forms will suffice. Licence of a poetic kind is always important to consider.

Anyway, if you’re bored this weekend, watch the original Planet of the Apes. It’s aged pretty well, a lot of its debates are still relevant, and even the monkey make-up still looks good (monkey make-up sounds better than ape make-up, ok!?)!

6 thoughts on “Stop the Monkey Planet, I Want to Get Off

  1. It’s my unfortunate duty to correct you on a couple of points. Firstly, the “original Penguin edition cover” depicted here is actually fan art (I know this, because I designed it You’re not the first person to mistake this for an official edition, and you won’t be the last.
    Secondly, the title “Monkey Planet” was used on all UK editions from 1964 to 1975. When reissued in 1986 it bore the title “Planet Of The Apes”. Every subsequent UK edition has this title.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for the mistake Gary, and thanks for letting me know, I always want to be sure I’m accurate, and know no matter how hard I try, I’ll get some things wrong! Well done on the cover, it’s fantastic and deserves to be mistaken for the real thing!


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