Enter the 2010 Baby Name Pool!

Mar 10th 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your mental engines! It's time for the 6th Annual Baby Name Pool.

Match wits with hundreds of other name enthusiasts, guessing the top rising and falling names of 2010. If you win, I'll extol your brilliance and grant you a year's worth of worldwide bragging rights! And if your predictions are total clunkers, nobody ever has to know that you entered at all. Good deal, huh?

The rules are simple: list three names that you think rose the fastest in the United States in 2010, and three you think fell. When the U.S. government releases its official name stats in May, I'll tally the results using the Baby Name Wizard Hotness Formula. The top total scorer gets the glory.

So it's simple...but not easy. You might spot a hot new name anywhere, from your neighborhood playground to American Idol to Bollywood. And fast-falling names are even trickier -- quick, what names have you NOT thought about this year?

If you haven't played before, you can read more details and check out the fastest rising and falling names of the previous year to get a sense of how name fashions operate. Then convince your friends and coworkers to enter and compete against you. ( This is an equal-opportunity contest, by the way; we've had male and female winners.)

All entries must be received by April 15. Think of it as a fun antidote to tax filing.

Ready to go? Fill out your ballot now!

Names in Translation: Astrid Lindgren Edition

Mar 3rd 2011


Continuing the discussion of translating the names of literary characters into other languages.

Last time, I discussed the challenges names pose to literary translators. For a case study, let's look at the works of Sweden's Astrid Lindgren. Ms. Lindgren wrote dozens of popular children's novels, and was a name inventor of great style and influence. I've mentioned before that Ronia, a name she created for the novel Ronia the Robber's Daughter, has become a contemporary Scandinavian classic. The name is almost always preserved in translations, with only spelling changes to reflect local pronunciation (Ronja/Ronia/Ronya).

Almost always. An early English translation inexplicably turned Ronia into...Kirsty. There's no excuse for rendering the unique and adventurous Robber's Daughter as an ordinary girl next door. Even more curiously, that same translator turned other character names into different but equally unfamiliar names, so Borka became Ranulf and Birk became Burl. Fortunately, a subsequent English translation returned all three characters to their original names.

Ronia may be best as Ronia, but you can see the value of good name translation in the English editions of Ms. Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books. Pippi's full Swedish name is:

Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump

We English speakers would have missed out on the fun if the translator hadn't rendered the name as:

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking

That's a virtuoso composition, a perfect balance of literal and poetic translation for full comic effect. Pippi remains unmistakably, indelibly Pippi. In fact, her first name goes untouched around the world except in France, where they apparently worried it sounded rude. So French children enjoy...yes, Fifi Longstocking (or rather, Fifi Brindacier).

For a subtler challenge, consider another favorite Lindgren series: the "Madicken" books. The character Madicken is a young girl in Sweden during World War I. The author took the name from the nickname of a childhood friend, whose given name was Anne-Marie. When Lindgren created her literary Madicken, though, she made the name a pet form of Margareta.

If you were a literary translator, would you change the name Madicken for a foreign edition? The character is of a specific time and place, which might argue for keeping the Swedish original. But a foreign reader would miss that Madicken is a unique, made-up nickname, a fact which shapes your impression of the character. So most translators chose to reinterpret the name Madicken in their local languages. 

It's a fascinating process, translating something that has no literal meaning. A translated Madicken can't be a traditional nickname, but it should follow the conventions of nicknames. It should sound plausibly linked to Margaret, but not too close. Some translators' efforts:

Dutch: Madieke

Estonian: Madlike

Italian: Martina

German: Madita

Norwegian: Marikken

English: Mardie

While I don't speak all of those languages, from my knowledge of their name styles most seem like solid choices. The glaring exception is Italian, where the unique nickname Madicken turned into the common formal name Martina. (What does the Italian translator do with scenes where Madicken's parents call her Margaret?)

Looking closely at a single name decision like this, you start to realize how much subtle information every name carries. We can't possibly pick up on all the nuances of original names in a foreign novel or film. But we can at least stop to consider them, as the Madicken translators did, and try to grasp what the writers were trying to say with their name choices. Many of them speak volumes.


Names in Translation

Feb 25th 2011

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!