|“||TO ROBERT BALDWIN ROSS IN APPRECIATION IN AFFECTION||”|
—Dedication of The Importance of Being Earnest
Wilde's two final comedies, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were still on stage in London at the time of his prosecution, and they were soon closed as the details of his case became public. After two years in prison with hard labour, Wilde went into exile in Paris, sick and depressed, his reputation destroyed in England. In 1898, when no-one else would, Leonard Smithers agreed with Wilde to publish the two final plays. Wilde proved to be a diligent reviser, sending detailed instructions on stage directions, character listings and the presentation of the book, and insisting that a playbill from the first performance be reproduced inside. Ellmann argues that the proofs show a man "very much in command of himself and of the play". Wilde's name did not appear on the cover, it was "By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan". His return to work was brief though, as he refused to write anything else, "I can write, but have lost the joy of writing".
On 19 October 2007, a first edition (number 349 of 1,000) was discovered inside a handbag in an Oxfam shop in Nantwich, Cheshire. Staff were unable to trace the donor. It was sold for £650.
The Importance of Being Earnest 's popularity has meant it has been translated into many languages, though the homophonous pun in the title ("Ernest", a masculine proper name, and "earnest", the virtue of steadfastness and seriousness) poses a special problem for translators. The easiest case of a suitable translation of the pun, perpetuating its sense and meaning, may have been its translation into German. Since English and German are closely related languages, German provides an equivalent adjective ("ernst") and also a matching masculine proper name ("Ernst"). The meaning and tenor of the wordplay are exactly the same. Yet there are many different possible titles in German, mostly concerning sentence structure. The two most common ones are "Bunbury oder ernst / Ernst sein ist alles" and "Bunbury oder wie wichtig es ist, ernst / Ernst zu sein". In a study of Italian translations, Adrian Pablé found thirteen different versions using eight titles. Since wordplay is often unique to the language in question, translators are faced with a choice of either staying faithful to the original—in this case the English adjective and virtue earnest—or creating a similar pun in their own language.
Four main strategies have been used by translators. The first leaves all characters' names unchanged and in their original spelling: thus the name is respected and readers reminded of the original cultural setting, but the liveliness of the pun is lost. Eva Malagoli varied this source-oriented approach by using both the English Christian names and the adjective earnest, thus preserving the pun and the English character of the play, but possibly straining an Italian reader. A third group of translators replaced Ernest with a name that also represents a virtue in the target language, favouring transparency for readers in translation over fidelity to the original. For instance, in Italian, these versions variously call the play L'importanza di essere Franco/Severo/Fedele, the given names being respectively the values of honesty, propriety, and loyalty. French offers a closer pun: "Constant" is both a first name and the quality of steadfastness, so the play is commonly known as De l'importance d'être Constant, though Jean Anouilh translated the play under the title: Il est important d'être Aimé ("Aimé" is a name which also means "beloved"). These translators differ in their attitude to the original English honorific titles, some change them all, or none, but most leave a mix partially as a compensation for the added loss of Englishness. Lastly, one translation gave the name an Italianate touch by rendering it as Ernesto; this work liberally mixed proper nouns from both languages.