Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On Names And Translation



A couple of months ago I wrote about language in fantasy. One of the comments raised a question which has also been asked by a couple of my early readers: why do my main characters have such ordinary names?

This is, in my mind, intimately tied to the question of language more broadly.

More specifically, what does the English language represent?

I've invented two languages for the Charanthe novels, but they are the languages of foreign cultures. I don't write the kind of stereotypical Hollywood 'foreigners' who speak (heavily-accented) English when talking amongst themselves. English in the Charanthe novels represents the language of the Empire (with stylistic variations for different regions within the archipelago). This is Eleanor's language, and since we see the world through her eyes, we understand it. If other characters speak a language she doesn't understand, then I don't translate for the reader.

That's a conscious decision. So is naming.

In this case, I wanted the Empire to feel like familiar territory (since, for Eleanor and her friends, it is), and contrast that later with the strange languages and experiences in foreign lands. If the books are ever translated, I would hope for the English dialogue to be translated but the other languages to be left alone. Likewise, if it was up to me, I'd choose to replace the names of those in the Empire with names that feel natural in the new language, whereas Tarasanka or Magrad names belong with those languages and should persist.

How about you? If you write fiction, do you worry about these things?

31 comments:

Vesper said...

I'm in the process of writing a novel about a female berserker. Names are very much important to me so I can relate to what you are saying here. I STILL can't find good names for my character!

Thanks for this post!

Jumbleberry Orchard said...

For a linguist and bookworm, this is a really interesting post! I'm currently reading Anna Karenina, in which some of the characters communicate in French to keep what they are saying private from those in the lower classes. As I speak French, these passages are understandable to me. I often wonder whether it would be beneficial if I didn't understand what they were saying (there are translations in the notes, but the passages are not important, so the mystery would remain without taking away the story), and whether, as a reader, I'm supposed to understand or not!

"And so our stories go..." said...

I've written 13 novels and I don't worry about what you suggested. I worried about putting one word in front of the other and then straightening them all out....lots of work.
Mary

forgottengenius said...

I just adore how much thought has gone into the names that feature in your story; although I haven't noticed it whilst actively reading your story, the effect was not at all unfamiliar to me upon reading this post.

When I write, I wish to accentuate that my characters live in a world set apart from that the reader knows--which I suppose is more of a common theme in fantasy. I accomplish this (somewhat poorly, at times) by choosing or fabricating names whose meaning correspond to the character's personality. Although no-one ever is going to notice, it pleases me never the less.

Toni said...

I know where you're coming from but when I write, I choose names that I like rather than those which would be deemed more suitable perhaps.
I think YOU have to be comfortable the way you write and the reasons for it and then everything else will fall into place.

lakeviewer said...

Interesting post; intuitive look at language.

Anything Fits a Naked Man said...

I agree with what Toni said. I pick my characters' names that I like. After all, I'll be spending the most time with them!

Really interesting post, hope you'll blog more about your writing process!

Midday Escapades said...

I don't write fiction nor I have read much lately. I find it amazing that you have created two languages for your novels. Wow.

Bangkok.Ian said...

How very Tolkienesque. He too gave tremendous thought to character names. They have sound philological foundations and, to me and I suspect you, as linguists we appreciate this. Somehow Samwise Gamgee is a short, country-dwelling fellow who smokes a pipe. That stereotype is mainly conjured by his name. It's some time since first I read The Lord of the Rings but I suspect it was so from the beginning for me.
I dabble in a little creative writing from time to time and, like you, spend a considerable length of time choosing names for characters. I choose them mainly because they sound 'right'. I suspect both you and Tolkien could rip my choices apart both lingusitically and diachronically. I am filled with admiration at your ability to invent whole systems. As indeed I am in awe of those who can speak Klingon.
I am intrigued by your choice of name for the main character, my youngest daughter is called Eleanor. I may just have to buy a copy of your book. :-)

Acting Balanced Mom said...

stopping by from SITS- I don't write fiction but I do read a lot... and I have to say I agree with you that names and language can totally affect the reader's thoughts about a book... congrats on writing two languages and a book... you must be busy!

Mikki Black said...

Just swung by from SITS to check out your post. I have to say that I love your defense of your choices. It makes perfect sense to me as a reader. I don't write for anyone except myself, but it sounds like something I would do. :)

Denise said...

Stop by today and see what's new...
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Lady Jane said...

I'm a book lover and never really thought about this issue. Interesting.

carma said...

I love how well well you think things through...I've never written any fiction, which is probably a good thing :D

emma said...

I think it's really interesting that someone has already mentioned Tolkien and the character of Samwise Gamgee as I think Tolkien took a similar approach to you: the idea is that The Lord of the Rings is a translation of a work originally written by the hobbits (The Red Book of Westmarch) and so Tolkien says he translated their names as well as the story i.e. Sam and Merry and Pippin and so on are not their real names, but translations of their meanings. There's some stuff about this on wikipedia. One of the reasons I think Tolkien's books are so good and so well-loved is the way he built whole worlds starting with languages. I don't think you can write fantasy, or good fantasy anyway, without thinking about this kind of thing, as you're clearly doing :)

Aidan Donnelley Rowley said...

As a writer and as a person, I think names are so important. They are not just what we call ourselves and our characters. Names are fundamental aspects of identity. For this reason, I take naming my characters very seriously.

As an aside, I am obsessed with baby names. I am constantly offering to name people's babies :)

lovemylevi said...

Following from the Friday Follow! Hope to see you at http://luvsjurn3.blogspot.com/2010/02/friday-follow_19.html soon!

Simply Stacie said...

Following you from the Friday Follow!

http://stacievaughansblog.blogspot.com

Booklover1212 said...

Good morning!!

Just visiting you from the Friday Follow Me!

~ Jennifer
http://thetoyboxyears.blogspot.com

Angela said...

Newbie "Follow Me Friday" follower. Have a great day!

Angela
http://nepastealsanddeals.blogspot.com/

Holly said...

Thanks for stopping by 504 Main. Happy Friday Follow. I write, but not fiction...not yet anyway.
Holly
504 Main

Nicole said...

Following you from the Friday Follow!! Love your blog and will definitely be checking back in :-)

Happy Friday!

www.myrealreview.blogspot.com

Sarah Lynne said...

Happy Friday!! I am a new follower!!

Sarah

sarahsblogoffun.blogspot.com

joeandbridge said...

Hi There! I am participating in my first Friday Follow. I have a brand new blog-I hope you can visit! I now follow and subscribe! Thanks!

Bridgette Groschen
The Groschen Goblins
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Heather McDougle said...

I don't write fiction so I don't have any advice for you.

I'm following you from Friday Follow!
Heather
http://www.ratherbechangingdiapers.com/

MisAdventuresofMomof3 said...

I'm not much of a fiction writer. Sorry not to help! BUT I am a new follower from FF

Hope you have a great weekend

misadventuresofmomof3.me

Dave Moody said...

Happy Friday Follow - I'm fairly new at this, so I'm following you. Have a rockin' weekend! Nice to meet you. Stop by soon!

HeartsMakeFamilies said...

Hi there! Thanks for joining the Blog Hop. I'm following you now. Love your blog. I'll be back later to read more.

Happy Follow Friday!

Tami
www.heartsmakefamilies.com

Nadia@FunWithMama said...

visiting from SIts,
very interesting post :)

Felissa Hadas said...

Stopping by to say hello with Friday Follow. Have a fantastic weekend.

Felissa
Please stop by my new blog to say hello
www.twolittlecavaliers.blogspot.com

www.felissahadas.blogspot.com

Amberlynn said...

...I have a feeling that your linguistics skills far surpass mine. And please forgive me if I vent about my linguistics courses.

Thanks for stopping by my blog, I'm now following you too :)

PS Yes, Hanson is still around. You can even expect a post about them in the near future.

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