9

I'm working on a novel that involves folklore/mythological creatures from mainly the Norse and Scandinavian myths, but in the world of the novel, there exists beings from all cultures. I wish to write it in English, leading to some problems with what to call the creatures.

Some creatures are easier than other. Valkyria, for example, could just be translated to Valkyrie and everything would still be great.

But beings such as the Bäckahäst would cause some trouble here. The common translation into English here is Kelpie, but to me, Bäckahäst and Kelpie are two different beings, one from Norse folklore and one from Scottish. So to translate Bäckahäst into Kelpie would be adding more confusion.

But keeping "Bäckahäst" as the name also causes some questions for me. Namely, how to add grammar stuff to it. The Swedish way to put Bäckahäst into plural would be to add "-ar" at the end of the word (Bäckahästar), but the English way is to add "-s".

Using the English version seems to me like the logical way, but it makes the inner me—reading the word the Swedish way—cringe.

Are there any tips on how to do this "right"? Or is the most important to be consistent throughout it all? Or should I just use Kelpie and skip the problem? Maybe go with my own word for each being?

Pro and cons for the different ways would be appreciated too. Have been trying to decide on this for way too long, and pretty much keep jumping between them all.

11

I really like the -ar plural, and I think you should keep it regardless. You don't always have to obey the rules of English if your original word isn't. English is rife with loan words from other languages, so there's plenty of precedent. Look at cherub and cherubim (the correct plural, I believe from Hebrew).

As far as the translation, do what works for your story. If your Bäckahäst is more of a selkie than a kelpie, then that's how you should treat and translate it. You can even have a character mistranslate Bäckahäst as "kelpie" and be corrected, so the reader knows you're doing it on purpose.

No matter which way you go, be consistent. If you use -ar for one Scandinavian plural, use it for all of them.

  • 3
    And maybe add a glossary of names/creatures with some brief description, origin, and literal translation or explanation of the name. E.g.: Bäckahästen (Swedish: bäck „creek“, hästen „horse“) is the spirit of the creek in Scandinavian Mythology and Scanian supersition. – user5645 Feb 2 '17 at 20:50
  • @what that's an excellent suggestion! – Lauren Ipsum Feb 2 '17 at 21:01
1

When I am not sure what to do, to the point it is delaying making a permanent decision, I try to find a way to incorporate the debate to the work itself.

My theory is that if it isn't obvious to me the creator after thinking about it for days–weeks–months, and I still see more than one side as valid, that's an opportunity to insert some worldbuilding and character background. Philosophical and cultural differences help prevent a monoculture, and not every cultural battle is to-the-death. Sometimes it's just cafeteria banter.

As you say your world is multi-cultural, a few characters could have this exact debate within the story.

1

This answer may be way overdue, but I would like to add my thoughts.

But beings such as the Bäckahäst would cause some trouble here. The common translation into English here is Kelpie, but to me, Bäckahäst and Kelpie are two different beings, one from Norse folklore and one from Scottish. So to translate Bäckahäst into Kelpie would be adding more confusion.

I agree with the above. Don't translate then. This kind of stuff really boils down to what you really emphasize. If you want to find the closest equivalent in the target language's culture, then you may use Kelpie. Here, you are helping English speakers bring up imagery about what they already identify with and know something about. If you want to emphasize on the cultural nuances of Bäckahäst, then you may use Bäckahäst.

But keeping "Bäckahäst" as the name also causes some questions for me. Namely, how to add grammar stuff to it. The Swedish way to put Bäckahäst into plural would be to add "-ar" at the end of the word (Bäckahästar), but the English way is to add "-s". Using the English version seems to me like the logical way, but it makes the inner me—reading the word the Swedish way—cringe.

People who speak Chinese as a second language and English as a native language may add -s to 汉语 in an otherwise English document. cringe Somehow, in their minds, they perceive 汉语 as singular. By itself, 汉语 is neither singular nor plural. Given that Bäckahäst is a foreign word, you may choose to italicize it to emphasize on the foreignness or keep it as Bäckahäst out of personal preference. As a foreign word, Bäckahäst should not follow English rules. Now, if you make up an English word based on the original word, like Backahast, by removing all the diacritical marks, then you may treat this as a native English word and thus add -s. So, the plural of the English word would be Backahasts. The original Swedish word would still be Bäckahästar. There, problem solved.

This question reminds me of my own question: How to describe a mythological creature that English has no vocabulary for? But the focus is on Chinese folkloric creatures. , , , have been translated into many things, all depending on context. Translators may choose words like demon, ghost, ghoul, spirit, and monster. (Pinyin: shòu ; Jyutping: sau3) is likewise difficult to translate. A notable Chinese dictionary Xin Hua Zi Dian (新华字典) may describe this as "有四条腿,全体生毛的哺乳动物" or in English translation "four-legged mammal". A mammal by definition has fur and consumes mother's milk. Okay, then what's 怪兽? Pleco translates this as (1) rare animal, (2) mythical animal, and (3) monster. The real meaning of 怪兽 lies in Chinese literature, including foreign literature in Chinese translation. It is possible to transliterate 妖精 into yāo jing (based on Pinyin), but nope, translators seem to be mostly interested in using existing English vocabulary. When 妖精 is translated as "demon", English speakers would think hell and bad stuff especially in the context of Christianity.

All in all, I think this just depends on what you want to emphasize and what you want to connote.

  • Your whole next-to-last paragraph is absolutely meaningless to me. I can't even tell those squiggles apart. I have no idea if they are letters, or words, or what. Could you please transliterate to English? – Galastel Feb 16 at 23:24
  • @Galastel are you not seeing the Chinese characters? Or do you want transliteration for all non-Roman alphabet words? It didn't bother me as is because, even though I can't even begin to read them, I can tell they're different and just examples. But they're coming out perfectly rendered for me (as does Hebrew when I'm on the Jewish SE). – Cyn Feb 17 at 0:25
  • I added links this time. I don't want to give the impression that Pinyin provides the only pronunciation or Chinese is centered around pronunciation. In the Chinese language, the written form gets primacy over the spoken form. – Double U Feb 17 at 0:31
  • 1
    @Cyn People in Guangdong province and Hong Kong speak Cantonese, and the Cantonese-speaking Chinese diaspora is everywhere. Overseas Chinese people may not learn Pinyin or Mandarin, but Chinese characters are inherently meaningful and are used. Spoken Mandarin and Spoken Cantonese are mutually unintelligible, because of pronunciation differences and different slang. Written Chinese at the formal level shows a different picture. A native Mandarin speaker can easily read a "Cantonese" Wikipedia with Mandarin pronunciations. The exclusive Cantonese characters may be passively understood. – Double U Feb 17 at 1:16
  • 1
    Written Chinese at the informal level shows another picture. Cantonese speakers may throw in more regional slang and regional characters with unique usages. Regional slang and characters are not limited to Canton; they are everywhere in China, including the Mandarin-speaking regions. Mandarin dialects will have their own slang and characters, so even their text messages may not be understood by another person from a different Chinese region. These are highly informal writings. Chinese literature covers Literary/Classical literature and vernacular literature, as well as translations. – Double U Feb 17 at 1:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.