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!



By EVie
February 25, 2011 7:24 PM

Great post, Laura. I've always thought that J. K. Rowling was a naming genius—I'm not surprised that translators have run into problems. Although I think that the French translators could have given themselves more options for the anagram if they had used a more direct translation and included the word "Sieur" or "Seigneur" for "Lord." They could even have used a looser translation of "Lord" and substituted "Comte" or "Duc" or something like that. But instead they decided to omit it entirely—strange.

I also love that you included Bob Loblaw from Arrested Development, which is just about the funniest TV show I've ever seen—I re-watch the whole series on a regular basis. For those who haven't seen it, Bob Loblaw is a lawyer whose name regularly lends itself to jokes like "Bob Loblaw's law blog" and "Bob Loblaw lobs law bomb" (try saying them aloud!)

By Birgitte (not verified)
February 25, 2011 7:49 PM

The Norwegian translator of Harry Potter actually won an award for the work he did. I thought that was cool, it is not often we translators get any kudos.

By ozy
February 25, 2011 10:04 PM

My husband and I had fun coming up with our own Harry Potter names. The best are the villain names, like Brutilla Charibdis.

February 25, 2011 10:26 PM

For admirers of the Potter name world, be sure to check out this post on J.K. Rowling & Charles Dickens:

By Aniela (not verified)
February 25, 2011 10:56 PM

Ironic that you use Marie Antoinette as your example of an untranslated name, since she was born Maria Antonia.

February 25, 2011 11:04 PM

Another few historical figures whose names are translated into English: Ferdinand, Isabella, and Christopher Columbus (Fernando, Isabel, and Christoffa Corombo in the original Genoese of his birth).

February 25, 2011 11:26 PM

"Ironic that you use Marie Antoinette as your example of an untranslated name, since she was born Maria Antonia."

Touché! But to be fair, there are different kinds of name "translation." There's what you're actually called as a person -- e.g. an immigrant going by Eugene rather than Yevgeni -- and there's how you're referred to in foreign writings. The latter kind does happen, as Elizabeth T. gives good examples of, but it's uncommon, especially with people from the past 200 years or so.

By Jane 6 (not verified)
February 26, 2011 12:06 AM

Sometimes names must be translated to be understood (as in the case of wordplay within the names) but sometimes it is nicer if the names remain untranslated. Not translating the name not only gives the reader a glimpse of the linguistic origins of the work, it introduces new names to the readership. How many American women would today be named Heidi, for instance, if Heidi had been translated as "Addie" or "Adele" in the eponymous novel?

Can I offer a quick poll? Which is better, Cicely or Cecily? Why?

February 26, 2011 12:42 AM

Visually, I like the "round" letters and the "pointy" letters separated.

Also, since the origin is Caecilius, but really I don't mind either one.

February 26, 2011 12:42 AM

Really interesting post! I just finished reading the English translation of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, which, as far as I can tell, kept all of the characters' Swedish names. It was an interesting experience for me, as I was being exposed to a lot of names I was not familiar with, but it could actually be confusing at times too. The author often went back and forth between referring to a character by their first name or only their last name, and especially for more minor characters with unfamiliar first names ("Malin" is an example I can think of now,) I would have to stop and think about who was being referred to and whether it was the character's first or last name. But maybe I just need to pay better attention when a character gets introduced. :) I'm the type of reader who flies through the book because I can't wait to see what happens next!

By izzy (not verified)
February 26, 2011 1:16 AM

Love the name Cecily. Also, if you like that sound, have you thought about Cecile? I personally don't really like Cecilia, but if that's what you're looking for, go for it!

February 26, 2011 3:38 AM

Jane 6: I prefer Cecily, just because it's more familiar to me.

By EleaB (not verified)
February 26, 2011 8:02 AM

Definitely an interesting topic. I have read several Spanish papers that refer to Prince Charles as Príncipe Carlos and Queen Elizabeth II as Reina Isabel.

A quick google search shows that the Italians refer to her as Regina Elisabetta.

It seems that royalty are a separate case.

By Guest-2011 (not verified)
February 26, 2011 8:22 AM

Well, almost all the Harry Potter names in german are untranslated. Der fast kopflose Nick (Nearly headless Nick) goes by the original english name here..

Only a few characters have different names, most notably:

Hermine (instead of Hermione)
Tom Vorlost Riddle (guess who?)
Wilhelmina Raue-Pritsche (Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank)

Here in germany one can watch a steady raise of the names Luna and Cedric of Harry Potter origin.

By Also ZR (not verified)
February 26, 2011 12:04 PM

Well, for some reason I can't log in properly today. So this is the pseudonym of Zoerhenne.
Anyway, I am finding it hard to relate to this topic as I have not read any of the Harry Potter books and really have no desire to. I find when I do read a book in which the author has NOT translated a name that it is very difficult to read. Like a name I cam across in a baby announcement the other day-Ciodhnar ?(sp) I was very unfamiliar with the pronunciation of this name. If I came across this in a novel it would throw off the character development for me because I would be worried about the name.

Jane-For me there is a slight pronunciation thing, it is Cecily (sess-uh-lee) vs. Cicely (siss-uh-lee). In that regard I prefer Cicely because of the sess part. However, it doesn't bother me as much when the name is the longer Cecelia. The boys name Cecil, I pronounce as (see-sull).

By Tintin LaChance (not verified)
February 26, 2011 12:08 PM

For an example of really good name translation (and localization in general), you might also check out the Ace Attorney video games. Oftentimes, the names of video game characters are left alone in translation, but in this case, the characters' names are Japanese-language puns that wouldn't mean anything to an English-speaking audience. A character named Kamen Mask isn't necessarily amusing to English audiences, so the character became Masque LeMasque, thus getting across the spirit of the name rather than the exact sounds. Et cetera, et cetera.

By Liberty (not verified)
February 26, 2011 2:48 PM

Love this post but can I sidetrack any of you for just a moment and ask for a bit of help? (Sorry).

I have 4 daughters: Ruby, Lyla, Mia, Ivy and I have found myself with an unexpected twin pregnancy. It's taken a while to get over the shock, but now I'm thinking positively and have turned my thoughts to my favourite subject: baby names!

We won't find out the sex til birth. At the moment we are pretty set on:
Esme and Olive (girl girl)
Olis and Esme (boy girl)
Olis and ? (boy boy)

I was keen on Olis and Arlo but my husband doesn't like Arlo. Can anyone think of another boy name that would go well with Olis? I would like something short with 2 syllables, like all the others, and, ideally, wouldn't repeat initials. We have had Eli and Milo suggested to us but we're not overly keen on either (plus we already have an M name).

Any suggestions would be deeply appreciated! Thanks.

By Izzy (not verified)
February 26, 2011 3:18 PM


I used Nymbler for a few of these, and I came up with:


Good luck!

By Jane 6 (not verified)
February 26, 2011 3:27 PM


Wow, congratulations! I have twins, too, and they are a special challenge and a real joy:)

Names that come to mind for you are:
Beau (not two syllables but otherwise seems to fit your style)

By Jane 6 (not verified)
February 26, 2011 3:31 PM

Izzy, we must have been posting at the same time. Interesting that we both came up with Theo and you have Ivo and I have Yves!

I'm loving everyone's thoughts on Cecily versus Cicely. Keep commenting please! (Also, anyone else have trouble with that "cess" sound? Is it too close to words like "cesspit"?)

February 26, 2011 3:43 PM

Yay! I also started laughing at the Bob Loblaw reference! And I agree that the Harry Potter naming is a fascinating subject. It's been years since I read them, so I don't remember all the minor characters, and the name references make me want to go back and re-read to find out who is who!

Also, my former roommie had her triplets! El0ise, Ann3cy and Mari3-Pierre are doing well...breathing with a little machine assistance, but hopefully going to try some regular breathing soon!

By izzy (not verified)
February 26, 2011 3:55 PM

@Jane 6 - I almost put down Noel, Beau, and Emmett - How funny!

Also, @Liberty: I know you already have a Lyla and don't seem to want repetitive beginning letters, but what about Leo, or Luca?

By hillary (not verified)
February 26, 2011 4:27 PM

@Liberty, these came to mind (and haven't been mentioned already)


By Also ZR (not verified)
February 26, 2011 5:28 PM

It's interesting all the vowels in your children's names. In going on just sounds:
(to go w Roo-bee, Lie-luh, Eye-vee, Mee-uh)
you need a Roo, or Mee sound
I would recommend Rowan, Rufus, Lucian/Lucas but for the alliteration. So I will second the suggestions of

By Barnacle (not verified)
February 26, 2011 5:31 PM


Hugo could also work.

February 26, 2011 6:29 PM

"Also, anyone else have trouble with that "cess" sound? Is it too close to words like "cesspit"?"

I think I prefer Cecily. For me, Cicely makes me think of the insult "sissy."

By izzy
February 26, 2011 6:48 PM

Quick question everyone!
I'm in the process of writing a new book, and I need a very stuffy, old fashioned sibset, 3 girls and 2 boys. If you have any suggestions, please help me! :)

February 26, 2011 7:00 PM

I know of a real sibset of Ch@rles, H3nry, and Georgin@, which is what I thought of right away! Just need 2 more girl names.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
February 26, 2011 8:19 PM


Frederick, Percival (Percy), Helena, Louisa, Augusta


Congratulations! And I love the name Arlo! It was on our shortlist for our second son, and I really thought that he'd end up with that name. But when he was born, a kept hearing a different name (Avner) in my head whenever I looked at him, so that's what we went with. It surprised me, but he suits his name. I like a lot of the names that have already been suggested by others, especially Theo, Felix, Silas.


I also prefer Cecily, both in sound and on the page.

By Amy3
February 26, 2011 9:29 PM

I laughed out loud at a French Voldemort named Elvis. That's hilarious! I was seriously glad to learn more about Dumbledore's name because just the other day my husband asked why I thought Rowling chose it (not that bumblebee necessarily clears that up).

@zoerhenne, I totally understand what you mean about being sidetracked by name pronunciation. I *hate* not knowing how to pronounce names in novels.

@Jane 6, I prefer Cecily. I actually like the "sess" over "siss" pronunciation and it doesn't put me in mind of cesspools.

@Liberty, congrats! I love lots of the suggestions and am particularly fond of Ivo and Hugo.

February 26, 2011 9:33 PM

Fixed my comp login problems so I'm me again!!

Izzy-I've always thought of Charles, Xavier and Augustus as rather stuffy names. Girls are tougher though. Maybe Ophelia, Vivian, and Daphne. Royalty names.

February 26, 2011 10:33 PM

@Jane6 - I definitely prefer Cecily over Cicely. Cecily is Sess-uh-lee and Cicely is Siss-uh-lee. Cecily was my great grandmothers name and she went by just Ces! It iddn't at all remind me of cesspool. Cicely on the other hand reminds me of both the Italian city and sissy, which is a bit of a derogatory term here.

@Liberty, congratulations. Before I'd even read everyone elses comments I thought of Hugo, Laszlo and Ivo. I love manyo of the other suggestions too :)

By JM (not verified)
February 26, 2011 10:42 PM

Because of this economy, many of my friends toy with working abroad. So we often wonder--but how would that name translate into, say, French, etc.?

We've mentally been keeping apprised of names that can easily work with romance languages:



By alr (not verified)
February 26, 2011 11:26 PM

Count me in as another fan of the Bob Loblaw reference. :)

Jane 6: I, too, am putting in a vote for Cecily. I quite love it.

Liberty: I don't have any suggestions that weren't already mentioned. I think my favorites are Arlo (maybe your husband will come around?), Hugo, Theo, and Leo (although I know it starts with L, which you already have). Clearly I enjoy the "o" endings! And our taste appears to overlap significantly!

...And I, too, have a solicitation of options! Many of you may remember that I have a Mabel (bio) and an Ephrem (Ethiopian). Well DH and I are adopting again and, although we do not yet have a referral, I am working on my list of potential names. The child will already have an Ethiopian name, so we may just add a middle, or we may give them a new first and move their given to their middle (make sense?). Soooooo, here's my big question:

Is it too "matchy" to have a Daphne if I already have an Ephrem? Daphne, Ephrem and Mabel?

Current list include:
Nora (which would be #1 except our ln starts with a "ra" sound and I don't know that I can do "Nora Ra-") :(

Arlo (I love it, but DH isn't sure)
Samuel (DH is in love with it, but I worry it is too common to go alongside Ephrem and Mabel)

Other thoughts or suggestions? Feedback on Daphne? Thanks!!

By izzy
February 26, 2011 11:41 PM

Okay, thanks for the feedback - please keep suggesting names! So far, I have

Charles Edmond
Theodore Lawrence
Louisa Adeline
Emmeline Catharine
Susannah Genevieve

This is just a very rough list.... but I can't seem to put my ideas on paper when I don't know my characters' names! frustrating.

By another Laura - nli (not verified)
February 27, 2011 12:28 AM

On the translation of names subject...I noticed that the Little Flower is typically refered to by her untranslated French name St. Therese. But, it also is not uncommon to come across parishes or prayer cards which refer to her as St. Theresa. I'm not certain but I'm wondering if in the last generation we've become less common to translate the names to English.

February 27, 2011 3:45 AM

@alr- I think Samuel is a bit plain with your other names. I think Daphne works well with Ephrem and Mabel. I don't particularly like sound matchy sibsets and I have no issue with it!
Nora I like but probably not with your surname. How about Nell? Could be short for Penelope or Fenella?

I think Josephine could work for you as well.
For boys, I am loving Leo and Arlo. I think a lot of the names that already been mentioned in this thread work well: Hugo, Felix, Theodore, Silas.

By Guest0900 (not verified)
February 27, 2011 7:24 AM

I just wanted to emphasize: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington goes by his original name in the German translation. Just his nickname is translated. Especially in the first books some names are translated, new characters in the books 4-7 are mostly kept English.

February 27, 2011 8:49 AM

Hendrik van Malkontent tot Maling seems like it should be Dutch, and not German... at least that was my German-speaking guess. (Heinrich von would be the German equivalent of that, though guests have clarified that the name was not altered from the English original.) I think it in Dutch it should be Heer and not Herr, though!

To confirm, I found this very thorough international Harry Potter translation lookup table, containing character names and phrases:
Provides a fascinating glimpse into how different translators tackled the puns and naming and word-inventions. Some translated only the minimum and others went much more extensively into revisions.

I personally find it much more pleasant to encounter names in the original form, rather than a translation, except if there is a plot reason where the reader has to understand the meaning of the name. Even then, I think that's what footnotes are for. :) Original names definitely heighten my sense of place, like in the Stieg Larssen trilogy - I didn't find it confusing, just fascinating. There were some names I wasn't sure know how to pronounce, especially some of the placenames, so I looked them up. I did really appreciate the use of footnotes in those books to bring the reader up to speed on historical and political backstory that would not have needed explaining in the original language.

Incidentally, I also bought the British editions of Harry Potter because the insertion of Americanisms like "sweater" and "closet" drove me crazy when I first started reading a borrowed copy. The list of UK to US "translations" is surprisingly long and in many cases made no sense to me whatsoever.
I think the unfamiliar turns of phrase would be easily figured out from context even by someone who had never spoken to anyone from the UK ever before. Would it be so terrible for American children reading a book about British children to learn some new slang?

By Amy3
February 27, 2011 10:16 AM

@alr, I really like Daphne with Mabel and Ephrem. Not too matchy at all! It feels nicely connected with them--sharing the second-letter A with Mabel and the PH with Ephrem.

For boy names, I love Arlo and agree with Chimu's list. Lots of good ones there. While Samuel is perfectly fine, I like others better. It does feel a little plain in comparison.

February 27, 2011 10:51 AM

Izzy-I like all of them except Susannah. That name doesn't seem as aristocratic as the others. How about Josephine Susannah?

alr-I think Daphne works well with Mabel and Ephrem. For a boys name I do like Arlo but it doesn't seem absolutely perfect. Samuel and the others don't seem right style-wise. What about Noah, Tobin, or Tristan?

By Lisa33 (not verified)
February 27, 2011 10:51 AM

Hey Amy,

I can't remember which book I read it in (possibly Magical Worlds of Harry Potter), but apparently J.K. named Dumbledore so because she imagined him humming to himself as he worked - kinda like a bumble-bee ^_^

You may also be interested to know that Albus means light/white and/or wise (I've seen all of these meanings in various places) and is derived from Latin.

Yay name-nerdiness and HP-nerdiness unite!

- Lisa

By Amy3
February 27, 2011 11:49 AM

@Lisa33, thanks for the amplification on why Rowling chose Dumbledore. That image is perfect. I was aware of the meanings of Albus, but Dumbledore had us stumped.

February 27, 2011 12:33 PM

@lucubratrix --the UK/US translations of Harry Potter also bug me--I remember specifically noticing that the description of a girl went from having a 'fringe' to 'bangs'. I feel like American kids could have figured out fringe in context?

Off topic: this quiz is fun!

It's the top 100 girls names in the last 100 years. I gave up after 5 min bc my attention span isn't long enough for 10 min of name guessing, but I only got 40 out of 100, and I think of myself as an NE, sad. :)

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
February 27, 2011 1:53 PM

@arl I love Daphne and thinks it goes well, but isn't matchy-matchy, with both your children's names. And I quite like all the names you've chosen. Noah also popped in my head, but it might be too popular right now for your tastes.

@izzy Some other names that popped in my head were: Dianthia, Anastasia, Sinclair, Bertrand, Montgomery, Antonia

Are the characters contemporary or historical? And where do they live? That might help.

February 27, 2011 3:57 PM

As a partial Norwegian speaker, I can explain the Torstein Bugge Hoverstad translations, because my beloved HP books are one of the things that are helping me learn the language.

Unlike most of the other translators, he wanted to give each character a name that would be the Norwegian equivalents to JK Rowling's English. There has been a bit of controversy over this because it's such an English story, but I really like finding all the Norwegian parallels to everything, so it suits me just fine.

Professor McSnurp is one of the things I find funniest. Quidditch becomes rumpledunk, Ron Weasley becomes Ronny Wiltersen, Hogwarts becomes Galtvort, Dumbledore becomes Humlesnurr. I think he's quite good at finding translations for names.

By Jenne (not verified)
February 27, 2011 6:14 PM

Bryony, I see your point about the Norwegian translations, except that Professor McGonagall [McSnurp] isn't supposed to have a funny name!

February 28, 2011 3:43 PM

I think McGonagall actually IS supposed to have a funny name. She shares a surname with William McGonagall, a Scottish poet known for writing really, really bad poetry (and being blissfully uncaring about his many critics). He's basically famous for writing poems so wretched they cross the line into being hilarious, sort of like an an earlier era's cult movies.

That's the only McGonagall I've ever heard of, so I only assume that the HP professor was named after the poet. I always thought it was a fun contrast with her ultra-competent and dour demeanor.

His wikipedia article is entertaining reading:
I have to admire his determination!

February 27, 2011 9:59 PM

Anne with an E, that quiz was way harder than it should have been for me! The spouse and I teamed up and only got to 49/100 in 10 minutes, which is embarrassing, since we actually have people in our lives with many of the names we missed! We had a very good time with it -- thanks for sharing!

Alr, congratulations on moving forward with another adoption! I hope you get a referral soon! I think Daphne goes very well in style with Ephrem and Mabel. Whether the ph sounds would be too much for you is really only something you can judge, but I would think it's fine! I also like Ivy very much. Nora doesn't work with a Ra first syllable in the last name, to me. Lena reads Scandinavian, German or Russian to me, so I would be at first surprised to find it on an Ethiopian little girl, but it wouldn't be a bad surprise at all! I really like the name, but my sole reservation is the Lee-nah or Lay-nah or Leh-nah pronunciation quandary.

For boy names, Leo, Arlo and Levi are my favorites - helpful, eh? I think my advice on chosing between those would depend on whether you were thinking that you'd add more children after this next one. I think not all combinations of Leo, Arlo, Levi and Lena work together as siblings, so you'd have to pick which you felt most strongly about. I agree that Samuel seems a bit plain next to Ephrem and Mabel, but if it's a middle name for the Ethiopian first name your child comes with, I think it would be perfect!

February 27, 2011 9:45 PM

This was a great topic Laura, thanks! As a HP fan, I have always been impressed by JKR's naming chops. It's great fun to read about the various translations.

Another great NE (and translation challenge) was Hergé, the creator of the Tintin comics. He came up with some very colorful names that often contain puns or other references. I think (like JKR) that Herge had to OK all the names that were changed to make sure they maintained their original meanings. And like Harry Potter, Tintin is a beloved character whose adventures have been translated into dozens of languages...a lot of work for those translators!