The invented language component of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange poses many problems for translators. Indeed, one of the purposes of this blog and the Ponying the Slovos project is to leverage how these problems work to reveal translation strategies. But it is not the only component which offers challenges to translators.

Most literary translators are not faced with having to translate invented languages. But they do face a similar problem. Commonly in literary translation, the translator is faced with the agonising question of how to translate proper names.

Different techniques are available to translators faced with the task of rendering a character name or invented place name into a target language. They may simply not translate at all, i.e. transfer the name across. This may seem lazy, but as a technique it works very well for classical literature which is already well associated with a particular language and culture. It would be bizarre for example to encounter Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote under any other name.

Alternatively, the translator may seek to ‘naturalise’ the name. Some forenames and even surnames have cognates in various languages. John Brown may become Jan Braun and Jean Brun, for example, without significant damage done. However, in some target languages, the construction of names, especially surnames or where patronymics hold sway, this becomes swiftly problematic. Some translators may seek to evoke the ‘music’ of the original name by translating it in terms of its sound, but of course this runs the risk of ‘false friends’ as well as likely sounding odd in the target language.

Others may seek to completely replace the name with a new name more in keeping with the target language’s culture. There are other methods too, involving omission (i.e. avoiding use of the name at all within the text), or various forms of modification, such as adding culturally specific suffixes. In short, as the parent of any new child will tell you, naming is not an easy process.

Harry Potter

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a good example of this issue. The first book alone has been translated into 76 different languages, including ‘dead’ ones such as Latin. As a result, this offers a useful case study for exploring how translators deal with names, a philological discipline known as onomastics.

Let us take Rowling’s titular hero, Harry Potter. His name is largely transferred wholesale across to target languages with little or no change. In Latvian his name is slightly domesticated to Harijs Poters, while next door in Lithuania he becomes Haris Poteris. Even in languages which do not use the Roman alphabet, his name is translated as closely as possible to the original. In Greek he is Χάρι Πότερ, in Bulgarian Хари Потър and even in Russian, where the initial aspiration is rarely used, he mutates only slightly to Гарри Поттер (Garry Potter.)

His sidekick Ron Weasley similarly remains Ron Weasley in the vast majority of translations. Even in languages like Ukrainian, where it must at least be transliterated to Cyrillic, the resulting Рон Візлі (Ron Vizli) is easily identifiable. But there is some minor creativity to be found among some of Rowling’s translators. In Dutch, he becomes Ron Wemel, presumably deriving from the verb wemelen, meaning ‘to teem with’. Likewise in Norwegian he is known as Ronny Wiltersen, perhaps deriving from vilter, and meaning roughly ‘son of the wild’.

The somewhat more challengingly named Hermione Granger presents a slightly tougher prospect, as her name strongly connotes a higher class than her two male friends. Nevertheless, this tends to be ignored again in favour of directly transferring her name, as happens in translations as varied as Catalan, Faroese, Finnish and Welsh, or else doing so with some minor naturalisation, such as the Czech translation, which gives her a local surnominal suffix – Hermiona Grangerová. Interestingly, the Afrikaans translator rises to the challenge by Frenchifying her – Hermien la Grange, though to what extent this connotes the subtle class difference suggested by Rowling is debatable. As with the heroes of the saga, the name of their nemesis, Draco Malfoy, remains virtually the same in all languages.

Rowling’s translators do begin to demonstrate some greater sense of freedom and creativity in relation to her minor characters, however. Seamus Finnigan quite rightly is de-anglicised to its etymological roots in the Irish version – Séamas Ó Fionnagáin. However, in Afrikaans, he becomes the Latinate Septimus Floris, and in Dutch he is similarly renamed (as Simon Filister). By contrast, the Bulgarian – Шеймъс Финигън, Latvian – Šīmuss Finigans, and Lithuanian – Semas Finiganas all tack closely to the sound of the original with minor amendments to local naming practices.

Greater creativity again is shown by translators dealing with the character of Neville Longbottom. His legitimate, though evocative surname has invited translators to flex some of their own inventive powers. He is Neville Loggerenberg in Afrikaans and Neville Londubat in French. The Welsh translator chose to fully de-anglicise his name, rendering him as Nefydd Llywelyn, while other languages sought to displace his surname with something more locally evocative. In Dutch he becomes Marcel Lubbermans, meaning ‘slack man’, while in Italian he is Neville Paciock, from pacioccone meaning chubby. In Latvian, the translator renders him as Nevils Lēniņš, likely hinting at lēns meaning slow, though the founder of the Soviet state cannot be ruled out as a reference.

Similarly, Luna Lovegood’s name offered translators multiple possible strategies, from straight transference, to translation of the meaning as in Latvian (Luna Mīlaba, from mīla meaning “love” and laba meaning “good”), to translation of the sound as in Bulgarian (Луна Лъвгуд) to partial or full creative displacement. In Czech, for example, she is transformed into Lenka Láskorádová, meaning Lena who Loves Happily. The Afrikaans translator, by contrast, transformed her into Mania Goedlief.

We see similar issues with heroes such as Albus Dumbledore. Sometimes the meaning of his forename is translated, as in Brazilian Portuguese where the Latinate term for white becomes the local Alvo, or Latvian where he becomes Baltuss to evoke the word for white – balts. Other translators have explored options for his surname. He is Albus Brumbál in Czech, meaning Albus Bumblebee and Albus Silente in Italian, for example.

Patterns do occasionally emerge. Mad-Eye Moody’s nickname is translated as Skrækøje (“horror-eye”) in Danish, Dwaaloog (“Wandereye”) in Dutch, Villisilmä (“Wildeye”) in Finnish and Fol-Oeil (“Mad-Eye”) in French. Likewise, a number of Rowling’s translators have chosen to focus on serpentine nomenclature for Severus Snape, who becomes Severus Kalkaros in Finnish, evoking a rattlesnake, Perselus Piton in Hungarian and Severus Piton in Italian.

Where translators face very tricky problems is when proper names are used as puns, or for other creative purposes within narratives. Famously, the villain Lord Voldemort’s original name is Tom Marvolo Riddle, which is an acronym for “I am Lord Voldemort”, a key plot point in the series of novels. This has a knock-on effect for translators, who are thus forced to retro-engineer a name which can then be used to anagrammatise an equivalent reveal. In Finnish, he becomes Tom Lomen Valedro, which can be untangled into “Ma olen Voldemort” meaning “I am Voldemort”. But not every translator had such a neat solution. Infamously, his middle name in French becomes, somewhat risibly, Elvis, in order to generate Tom Elvis Jedusor, which in turn produces “Je suis Voldemort.”

A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones)

George R.R. Martin’s lengthy fantasy saga reached a whole new audience with its television adaptation, “Game of Thrones”. As is typical with a lot of high fantasy literature, it has a pseudo-medieval milieu in which technology is suspended before the invention of firearms, and in which chivalric codes and inherited rule predominate. Martin’s invented world is a dense one, populated by many thousands of individual characters, many of whom are arranged into families or Houses, each of which has its own slogan, sigil, and geographical base. All of this detail must therefore be translated, and much of it leads to difficulties in the same way that the character names produce for Rowling’s translators.

Many of Martin’s invented place names in Westeros are simply descriptive rather than creative, and hence there is a temptation for translators to directly translate them. In Portuguese, Martin’s location names are often translated literally, leading to results like Forte do Terror (Dreadfort), Pedra do Dragão (Dragonstone) or Porto Real (King’s Landing.)

 Similarly, a French translation renders Dreadfort as Fort-Terreur, Dragonstone as Peyredragon (from pierre de dragon) and King’s Landing again as Port-Réal. Some minor creativity emerges in place names such as Riverrun (Vivesaigues, deriving from vive – sharp, and aiguë – acute, or treble), and Storm’s End (Accalmie, meaning ‘becalmed’). However, many readers were unimpressed with literal translations such as Potaunoir for Kettleblack, Petitbois for Smallwood, Corbois for Hornwood, or Fort Griseaux for Greywater Watch. The Italian translation functions similarly.

This still offers more creativity than the monotony of the Danish translation, in which the word for castle (Borg) appears in Flodborg (Rivercastle, for Riverrun), Vinterborg (Wintercastle, for Winterfell), Ørneborg (Eaglecastle, for The Eyrie) and even Casterly Borg for Casterly Rock. This latter location has caused some particular consternation for readers of translations. In the related languages of Serbian and Croatian, the different translators have chosen very different approaches, neither of which has met with great fan approval. The Serbian term leverages the cast- component in the sense of ‘casting metal’ to produce Livacka Stena, or ‘Smelterly Rock’. By contrast, the Croatian name for the Lannister stronghold derives from the sense of cast meaning ‘to launch or throw’, resulting in Bacačeve hridi, meaning Thrower’s Cliff. Both are still considered superior to the Russian translation, however, in which it becomes Бобровый Утёс, meaning Beaver Cliffs!

Some translators have run the gamut of strategies, however, such as the Spanish translation,which varies from straight translation (Kings Landing becoming Desembarco del Rey) via minor creativity (Storm’s End is Bastion de Tormentas, meaning bastion of (or against) storms, and Riverrun is Aguasdulces, or Sweet Waters) all the way to full displacement (Winterfell becomes Invernalia, the word for Winter with a Latinate suffix).

Many, but far from all of George R.R. Martin’s creations can be found in translated form at the fan wiki site:


The master, not only of invented fantasy locations and invented languages but also of fantasy literature itself is J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, and therefore it is unsurprising that the man who created a vast mythopoeic epic to contextualise his invented languages has some firm guidance for those who would attempt to translate his work. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth teems with character names, place names and entire languages which are wholly invented by him, leading to inevitable difficulties for his translators. Disappointed in the quality of the first translation he read, Swedish as it happens, he wrote notes for his future translators, which he later expanded into an entire guide.

The Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings was compiled by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1966 to 1967, and primarily intended for the benefit of translators, especially for translations into Germanic languages. According to the Tolkien Society, the first translations to benefit from his advice were those into Danish by Ida Nyrop Ludvigsen and German by Margaret Carroux, with whom he corresponded directly, both of which appeared in 1972, just before his death. Photocopies of his guidance document were habitually sent to translators of The Lord of the Rings by his publishers Allen & Unwin from 1967, and in 1975, after Tolkien himself had died, it was finally published as Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien in A Tolkien Compass.

Tolkien’s guide for his translators, which can be read here – is simultaneously didactic and erratic. One wonders to what extent translators would have welcomed such an intrusion into their practice, but of course Tolkien was no mean linguist himself, fluent in around 16 different languages in addition to those he created. He was also a published translator of literary classics such as Beowulf, and his close guidance, policed by his publishers must have felt to his translators like his ghost hovering sternly about their shoulders. After all, Tolkien once wrote that “the effort to translate, or to improve a translation, is valuable, not so much for the version it produces, as for the understanding of the original which it awakes.” He was very much on the end of the spectrum which favours fidelity to the original text over creativity on the part of the translator.

His document is weirdly specific, and yet far from consistent. He was painstaking in identifying le mot juste for words like elf, for example, yet equally he was diffident about how the very English name of Harry might be transposed. Sometimes he desired a root form to be preserved, as in Bilbo’s and Frodo’s surname, Baggins, which he insisted should retain some version of the target language word for bag within in. As a result in French, Bilbo Baggins is Bilbon Sacquet or Bilbo Bessac, retaining the sense of bag in the root forms of sac or besace.

There is an additional curiosity here, in that The Lord of the Rings is itself purportedly a translation, in which the common speech of Middle Earth, Westron, has been translated from Bilbo’s Red Book of Westmarch into English. According to the appendices in The Lord of the Rings, several of the names in the English version of The Lord of the Rings are transliterations from Westron, and volume XII of Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-Earth reveals that the four hobbit heroes of the novel are not who we thought they were. In fact, Samwise Gamgee was the rather Turkish-sounding Banazîr Galbasi, Merry Brandybuck was instead Kalimac Brandagamba, Pippin Took was actually Razanur Tûk, and astonishingly, Frodo’s real name was Maura Labingi!

Not all translators took Tolkien’s ghostly advice to heart however. In Russia, which has only a nodding acquaintance with Western copyright laws, various versions of Tolkien’s work circulated, initially in samizdat and later in semi-official versions, few of which were fastidious about fidelity to his work, or indeed his guidance. Indeed, Russian Tolkien fans are known to joke about the inconsistency of naming between various translations. One runs as follows:

One time, an Orc, a Troll, and Gollum met in a dale. The other two ask the Orc: “Who are you?” He says “I’m a hobbit.” They ask the Troll who he is. “I’m a hobbit,” he replies. They ask Gollum the same. “Hobbitses,” he answers. “So…why are we all so different?” they ponder. “Because we are from different translations” is the punchline answer.

Vincent Ferré, who is in charge of the translation into French of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, has discussed the peculiarities of doing so extensively here: He notes that the fantastical nature of the narrative, as well as the linguistic features of French as opposed to English, leads inevitably to some drift of meaning:

“We might also show how the determination of gender (masculine or feminine) in the case of place-names, such as ‘le Mordor’, ‘le Gondor’, or those names which are translated (‘la Comté’ for ‘the Shire’), can alter the perception of the imaginary world,” he writes. “But this problem of choice is in fact a general one, and applies to many other aspects of the text, chiefly owing to the imaginary nature of the world in which the narrative unfolds.”

Many of Tolkien’s translators, though not all by any means, have dealt with this challenge of choice and their decisions may be explored further via the extensive list which has been compiled at the Tolkien Gateway:

A Clockwork Orange

So, what does this tell us about A Clockwork Orange, with its many Nadsat-related challenges for translators? Primarily, compared to some of the variety found in Tolkien, Martin or Rowling, Burgess’s nomenclature is generally rather straightforward to translate. In most languages, Alex and two of his three droogs are simply transferred across to the target language. It helps, of course, that Alex, Pete and Georgie, though far from universal, are very common names in many parts of the world.

Where things get interesting is with the fourth and final droog, Dim, “Dim being really dim”. His name is, firstly, not a forename but a nickname, and secondly it is a pun, or rather, it functions like one, being a kind of rude and dismissive descriptor of his limited capacities. This opens up the possibility for translators to engage creatively with naming Alex’s least useful droog. In Robert Stiller’s 2014 Polish translation, Mechaniczna Pomarancza, Dim becomes Jołop, or blockhead, evoking the meaning of dim as stupid. By contrast, in Moog Konttinen’s 2015 Finnish translation, Kellopeli Appelsiini, Alex, Pete, Georgie are joined by Pim, which not only means ‘dark’, thereby evoking the other meaning of dim, but also actually rhymes with the original. Somewhere between the two is the Spanish translation by Anibal Leal, where Dim is translated straight as Lerdo, meaning ‘dull’ or ‘dim’. Fabio Fernandes’s 2004 translation into Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, seeks to evoke Dim’s violent and rash nature by calling him Tosko, deriving from tosco, meaning rough.

Perhaps the French translation by Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier best demonstrates some creativity in the area of onomastics. Pete becomes Pierrot, a diminutive of Pierre, just as Pete is of Peter, which translates to Pierre. However, Pierrot is also a stock character from the commedia dell’arte, a late 17th century dramatic form popular in Paris and similar to pantomime. This gives Alex’s sidekick a cultural resonance that simple transference could not achieve, and one which chimes with some of the linguistic archaism of their Nadsat slang. Georgie could have become Georges, but perhaps Belmont disliked the idea of such an unpleasant character being named the same as himself. Instead, he becomes Jo in L’Orange Mécanique.

And Dim, being really dim (or Pim, or Lerdo or Jołop)? He is Momo, vraiment momo le Momo. Though this is now a common diminutive for Mohammed in France, it would not have been current as such in 1972 when Chabrier and Belmont published their translation. Instead, this seems to evoke, in a pleasingly childlike repetitive fashion, the familiar but antiquated term môme, meaning ‘young child or adolescent’, according to the Trésor de la langue française informatisé.

Burgess himself was a translator, and published some translated novels from French with his first wife. His second wife, Liliana Macellari, was a quite renowned translator of English language literature into Italian. As a result, Burgess claimed to insist on seeing translations before they were published, though the extent to which he did this fastidiously is not known. He claims in his second volume of autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, that a line in Earthly Powers which read “Go to Malaya and write about planters going down with DT’s” was rendered into Italian “to the effect of writing about planters committing fellatio with doctors of theology.” As with all authors, no matter how polylingual, Burgess was forced to place his trust in his interlocuters in other languages, and sometimes that trust was misplaced.

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