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!


I'll Take Baby Names for $500, Alex

Feb 16th 2011

This week IBM unveiled its new Jeopardy-playing computer. The A.I. extravaganza represents years of research and millions of dollars of investment. No detail was overlooked, no expense spared, and no part of the endeavor is more perfect than the computerized contestant's name: Watson.

The name works on many levels. First off, it's solid corporate branding. One look at the ad-covered tv sound stage and Watson's corporate-logo avatar tells you how seriously the company takes that. Thomas J. Watson was the legendary leader who built IBM into a global powerhouse, and the Jeopardy system was developed at IBM's Watson Research Center. To an "IBMer" (yes, they really call themselves that), the name Watson means Research. That message doubtless shines through to the kind of corporate customers who tour IBM labs, too.

For the general public, meanwhile, the name's #1 association is Sherlock Holmes' "Elementary, my dear Watson." That's the perfect image of astonishing deductive power rendered deceptively simple. Better yet, Dr. Watson was Holmes' obedient, non-threatening sidekick. That sets Watson apart from another intelligent talking computer associated with IBM: Space Odyssey's HAL.

For those unfamiliar with HAL, it was the powerful but not so friendly computer that controlled the spaceship in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At that time IBM was the undisputed king of the computing world, and much was made of the fact that the threatening artificial intelligence bore a name one letter offset from IBM.

For all that Watson's mild name suggests otherwise, this new A.I. and HAL do have a lot in common. Both feature powerful natural language processing, so they can respond to casually worded questions. Both respond in a neutral, modulated, not-quite-human voice. Both are visually represented by an abstract avatar, rather than a humanoid to match their voices. And both, despite being abstract and incorporeal, are presented as male -- and, by most viewers' reckoning, white.

I'm curious how seriously the Watson team considered giving their computer a different kind of identity instead. (I-Be-Emma?) I can reluctantly appreciate, though, why they didn't.

Imagine a vast media blitz behind a "female" A.I. -- let alone an A.I. with an "ethnic" name. Realistically, the public discourse would be drawn away from the technological triumph and toward the identity choice. Some would applaud it as progress; others would disparage it as pandering; still others would try to discern ulterior motives, or just poke fun at it. Whatever the reaction, it would distract from the core message of research progress that IBM worked so hard to craft.

In other words, the "generic masculine" isn't quite dead. The use of "he" to mean any man or woman is falling away, but a female identity is still more noticeable than a male. In this case, a female name may have sounded too noticeably human. IBM took pains to make its Jeopardy player all machine.

Yet we have seen an inspired example of a female-named robot that remained coolly, imposingly robotic: the animated EVE in the movie Wall-E. Apparently creative minds can get past that sex barrier...if they need a romantic partner for a male robot. Baby steps.