Sometimes authors give their characters significant names – and translating these names can be quite a challenge.
Oh boy, literature. Second only to poetry in its difficulty for your brave and adventurous translation professional, literature both modern and classic is a hornet’s nest of bizarre decisions stemming from its artistic nature. After all, fiction doesn’t require straightforward communication, and many authors will bury symbolic details throughout the work. This means that you can be a very skilled language translation expert and understand every sentence of a work of literature and still walk away with only a feeble understanding of the work. That’s not just a problem in other languages, either – you can read a work in your native tongue and come away with just a superficial understanding of it, after all. I’ve read Ulysses by James Joyce several times and still don’t think I’ve gotten more than a surface comprehension from my efforts.
What hope then do we have for works in other languages? For a taste of the challenges we face when translating art and literature, let’s consider just one aspect of it all: When is a character’s name just a name, and when is it a charactonym?
The Descriptive Name
The simplest way to define the term charactonym is to say it’s a ‘significant name’ for a character that is more than simply a name. For a made-up example, let’s say you’re writing a children’s book and you name your villain Lord Snidely, who is always being rude and snide to everyone. See what that is? It’s a character name that signified something about his personality or possibly his role in the plot itself (in a murder mystery, for example, you might name a character who is wrongly suspected of the crime Ralph ‘Red’ Herring).
When translating a work, then, you would need to understand what the charactonym is trying to accomplish so you can rename the character in a workable way. This has plenty of challenges, beginning with simply realising when a character name is a charactonym in the first place. If it’s subtle and not played for humour, it might be difficult to realize that a name was chosen for very specific reasons.
Challenges of Translation
The biggest challenge is when the literal translation of the name isn’t really a name in the target language. Part f the charm and effectiveness of a charactonym is its subtlety – you may not realise its purpose at first, or at all, but can still enjoy the story. However, if your character is named Mr. Pond in English, it might not make sense to call him Señor Estanque in a Spanish translation, because estanque isn’t a common enough name in Spanish.
Sometimes there is simply no easy solution, and you’re left with the nagging feeling that you may have missed who knows how many other details in the work that are now lost forever and permanently to your foreign-language readers. That’s what translators live with every day – the fear that our translations are a disservice.
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