Translation terror

How far should 'showing' a different language go in a novel? Just to make this clear: I am not talking about characters speaking an odd tongue. That's such a big topic, it deserves its own blog post. No, I'm talking about names here. Names of characters, places, objects, creatures - whatever you can think of.

In case you don't know: I'm Dutch. Thanks to that, I've read a lot of Dutch novels, because the English section of my local library was a bit... sad, especially the fantasy department. So I've read a lot of translated books. Dutch and English are not miles away in terms of similarity. Despite that, it still goes wrong.

For example: Terry Pratchett's wizards work for the 'Unseen University', where they study magic. In one of the books, it got shortened to 'UU' to be used as an emblem on a football shirt. Another character said this was a stupid idea. Having huge U's on your shirt makes it look like you've got an pair of breasts begging for a bra.

In Dutch, this university is called 'Gesloten Unversiteit': closed university. The joke didn't work with GU of course. It was clear Pratchett was joking here, but it took me ages to get it. I feel sorry for the translator. This was something he couldn't solve, since he translated Unseen University that way many, many books before (but it would have been so helpful to add a footnote telling me he meant 'UU').

This is one end of the scale, where a proper translation just can't be done (unless, in Pratchett's case, all his Dutch books get a reprint so that 'GU' can be renamed). Sometimes though, there is a bit too much 'translation'.

I've read my dad's copy of 'a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', which is pretty much his bible. It's an old book though, so things are probably a bit different for more recent prints. Anyway, that book wasn't translated to Dutch though; it was turned Dutch. Names were Dutch (Ford Prefect turned into Amro Bank, Arthur Dent into Hugo Veld, and so on), places were Dutch (Amsterdam suddenly pops up), and activities were Dutch (cricket became hockey).


Okay, I know why: I guess it's to make the reader more familiar with the setting, especially when reading books in their original language is not common. Still, I can be quite annoyed by it. It's fine to change a name to something easier for a Dutchie to pronounce, but to change it to something completely different is just annoying. I mean, 'Arthur' is a name that works in Dutch, why did it have to become 'Hugo'?

Let's change the situation: what about novels that are written in English, but use foreign or made up languages? That last thing reminds me of Tolkien immediately. He came up with his languages first, then made a world to go with them. It fits beautifully. Even though I do not speak Elvish, I do not mind reading about it. I guess it's because it's not pushed in your face constantly and even though the names are Elvish/Dwarfish/whatever, they are still pronounceable.

Another example: I recently read 'a Sorcerer's Treason' by Sarah Zettel. I really love the characters, but goodness, their names are impossible to remember! You have things like 'Medeoan Edemskoidoch Nacheradavosh'. I guess only Russians have no problems with that. I love that the names are so clearly 'not from my world', but it would have worked better for me if some of the syllables were cut out (I just called the woman 'Med'). Luckily, these difficult names were only used for some of the characters. You can name so much more: objects, cities, creatures... But what's the limit? How many foreign words can you put in a novel before it starts to become annoying?

I wish I knew the answer to that. I guess it depends on the level of oddness of the language. Cities, character names or countries in fantasy novels ending on 'ia', 'ea' or 'dor' or 'an' already sound fantastical and if they are also easy to pronounce, I think they will never become annoying. I try to stay away from the 'ia's' though, since they feel a bit overused. I write in English and the 'fantasy' language in my story is Dutch, but there is also some Frisian, Low Saxon and a butchered version of Celtic in there. Sounds like a terrible mix, but I tweak it, so that it all fits (I hope) and makes sense. I try to stick to a certain set of rules to prevent myself from throwing in random non-English words too often, but also to make sure that English does not become too dominant.

  • Character names* in the common tongue are 'Dutch-ish'. This language is spoken on the entire northern continent, where 90% of the story takes place. There are accents though. The more west you go, the more 'Dutch' the language gets (read: ugly, according to many of the inhabitants). I use Dutch and Low Saxon here. In the more central/eastern parts, the language is softer, with not-so-harsh 'g's' and such. There, the names are more often based on something Frisian or even Celtic. That's where names like 'Morgan' originate from.

  • Toponyms are Dutch. Or better: Old Dutch. The names are often so old that many people do not know their original meaning. I love toponyms, they can say so much about a landscape. I think it's a nice topic for a different blog.

  • Names of made-up creatures are 'Dutch-ish'. For example: 'skaad' means 'shadow' in Frisian, and I use it for a dark creature that's a mix between a dragon and a horse. However, fantastical creatures that already have been 'invented', like unicorns and griffins, keep their English names. It's just so much easier to use the English word here, because everyone already knows what these creatures are. My made-up creatures simply do not have such an English equivalent. Sometimes you see authors misspell the names of their creatures on purpose to indicate that their monster is different but I find that highly annoying. If it's truly different, give it an unique name, if it looks a lot like the original, then don't pretend it's truly different.

  • Names of home-brewed objects on the other hand are often in English. This is more out of laziness: I don't have that many of them and the names are pretty straightforward (you want an object that can store spells? Let's call it a spellkeeper! How original...).

  • This Dutch-ish common tongue in my story is not the only language. I have three others, of which one of them has 'being unpronounceable by humans' as its biggest trait. When these languages, or even names in these languages get translated, they will turn into English. I guess one exception is for names that got translated decades ago; they end up with a 'Dutch-ish' name.

Oh, and for the people out there who want to use unusual names as well: beware of the shame name! unless you want to make a joke. Here, have a laugh: Joke, Dick Kok, Fokje Modder, Floor, Wierd Duk, Siemen and Harm - names that work well in Dutch, but not so much in English.

I fear this post is more of a rant than a source of advice or useful tricks - I just want to give you something to think about. Do you prefer a translated book to stay as close to the original language or do you like a more tailored version, something that fits your language and culture? How well are books translated in your country anyway? And if an English novel uses foreign languages (real or not), do you like to see a lot of that?

*There are a few characters whose names do not follow my own rules. Bonus points of awesome if you can spot them!

#translationterror #English #Dutch #mothertongue #translate #terrypratchett #unseenuniversity #hitchhikersguide #arthurdent #hugoveld #uu

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