Names in Translation
What's the French version of Mary? How about the Spanish? We all take for granted that Mary, Marie and Maria are translations of the same name. Yet we don't typically translate individual people. English writers don't refer to Queen Marie Antoinette as "Mary Toni."
With fictional characters, though, it gets complicated. Literary translators often keep characters' original names to maintain the cultural flavor of the original work. But in some cases a change of name is more true to the work's spirit. Consider, for instance:
- Names with strong stylistic connotations, like "down to earth" (Marge Gunderson) or "old money" (Thurston Howell III)
- "Charactonyms" that make literal connections to a character's personality traits (Cruella de Vil, Remus Lupin)
- Names designed for laughs (McLovin, Bob Loblaw)
If the intended impact doesn't carry through to the new language, a translation can help maintain the author's vision. It feels right, for instance, that Harry Potter's school Hogwarts is rendered Zweinstein in Dutch. It's also easy to accept the German version of Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington (Nearly Headless Nick) as Herr Hendrik van Malkontent tot Maling.
On the other hand, it's hard to fathom why the Norwegian translator felt the need to turn dignified Professor Minerva McGonagall into Minerva McSnurp. And author J.K. Rowling has herself expressed dismay at Albus Dumbledore's Italian translation: Albus Silente. The translator apparently missed that "dumbledore" is an obscure term for "bumblebee," and thought the "dumb" part of the name meant "mute." (Warning: more Harry Potter discussion with spoilers ahead.)
The Harry Potter world also showcases some extreme challenges of name translation, such as wordplay. It may be tempting to translate the name Tom Marvolo Riddle literally, with marvels and enigmas. But the most essential property of the name is its anagram: "I am Lord Voldemort." Thus the Dutch Tom Riddle is Marten Asmodom Vilijn (Mijn naam is Voldemort), while the French is Tom Elvis Jedusor (Je suis Voldemort). The anagram requirement clearly came first -- and you have to wonder about the effect on readers of a Voldemort named Elvis.
Next time I'll focus on another children's novelist to look at the varied ways translators can approach name challenges, for better and for worse. On to the next post!