Headlines and Titles of Works

Q. I’m editing a biography (in English) of a French historical figure that contains many French-language titles of works, including plays, books, poems, and artwork. I’m applying Chicago’s rule of sentence-case capitalization to these titles (for example, La dame aux camélias). But what about a title like Les Misérables? Should that actually be written Les misérables? That doesn’t seem right.

A. If you were to use sentence case for French titles of works, then yes—you would write Les misérables, because “misérables” is not a proper noun. But French usage varies. You’ll see sentence-style capitalization in some of the product descriptions at Amazon.fr for Victor Hugo’s novel (and its adaptations in other media); more often you’ll see what looks like headline style. But as a longer title would show, that isn’t headline style; it’s the Académie française–approved style that capitalizes the definite article and the first substantive (and any intervening adjective or adverb). That’s the style you’ll see on many French book covers and title pages (and according to which your other example would be styled La Dame aux camélias). CMOS mentions this style as an alternative in paragraph 11.27. We recommend sentence style first because it’s easy to apply and applicable across many languages. But you can make an exception and follow the more common French practice, especially in a work with a French theme (and assuming you are familiar enough with French to apply the rule correctly). For a fuller statement of the rule (in French), see the discussion of capital letters in titles of works (“majuscules dans les titres d’œuvres”) under “Questions de langue” at the website of the Académie française (where Les Misérables is used as an example).