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.



By JuliaLu (not verified)
May 6, 2011 4:53 AM

The Swedish names are almost the same but they use the nickname versions instead. Some of the spellings are slightly different as well, like Kerstin (pronounced almost like Sheh-shtin) The one big exception was Pip that left me skratching my head, we would never use Pip in Sweden. The Swedish original names and spellings are; Lisa, Lasse (Lars), Bosse (Bo), Anna, Britta, Olle (Olof) and Kerstin.

By JuliaLu (not verified)
May 6, 2011 5:19 AM

Oh, and BORK is NOT a Swedish name! The Muppets and their Swedish chef. Sigh. And the name Birk (pronounced Beerk) was made up by Astrid Lindgren.

For Little Women, the manes remain the same in Swedish. Anne of Green Bagles is still called Anne, but Green Gables is translated to Grönkulla Green hill).

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July 17, 2014 12:47 PM

I like to read books about Astrid Lindgren and I can explain the meaning of Ronja. Lindgrens husband was director of the swedish Automobile Association. When she wrote the Ronja Book, she took a swedish Road Atlas and found a lake in northern Sweden called Juronjaure, Ju RONJA ure. That's it...