When an author produces a popular fictional work (take Harry Potter) that's translated into many languages not native to the author, who decides how fictional words from that work are translated?

In the above example, I'm thinking specifically of words like "muggle", "quidditch", and "squib." Since J.K. Rowling presumably doesn't speak, say, Japanese, does she have a say in just how these words are translated into Japanese? Or would that simply be the job of the Japanese translators to create words at their own discretion based on what they know of the fictional words as Ms. Rowling used them in English?

3 Answers 3


All aspects of translation, including the treatment of proper or made-up names, are the decision of the translator.[1]

Firstly, as you correctly stated, the author cannot be expected to know the target language and to be able to give any insights on the subject.[2]

Secondly, the treatment of names is only one of the many decisions that the translator must take. These decisions are a part of the general strategy that the translator chooses (for example, to what extent to adapt the text to the target culture, how to handle the cultural expectations of the target audience, and so on).

Granted, it can happen that a translator consults with the author or asks their opinion, but that is absolutely not a standard and depends on the translator's and author's position, the stance of the publishing house, and so on.

[1] An exception here are special conditions set up by the publishing house. For example, if a text belongs to an existing franchise (say, a Star Wars novel), the translator may be required by the publishing house to stick to an existing terminology.

[2] There are exceptions, of course. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien expressed his opinions about how proper names in his work should be translated in Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings. However, that was not binding for translators, and there are existing versions where the translator decided to ignore these suggestions. Of course, the case here is a rare one, as Tolkien was a linguist and constructed languages played an important role in his books.

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    Tolkien's Guide to Names actually posed an interesting problem for some translators, as it was written with only West-European languages (Romance and Germanic) in mind. Emanuel Lotem, who translated Tolkien's literature into Hebrew, commented on how Tolkien would set a rule, and then explain why he wanted things this way. In order to follow the why when translating into Hebrew, Emanuel Lotem had to completely ignore the actual rule as written. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:42
  • Really? I started reading Tolkien 50 years ago and have never once heard of anything like your Guide to Names which matters much less than than Google also recognises no such text. That aside, what problem d'you see with setting a rule, then explaining it? To me, that sounds like the normal way to go. Commented May 6, 2018 at 16:26
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    Google doesn't recognize it? Interesting...
    – user23425
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 17:21
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    I read an interview of the translator of Harry Potter to French and he reverse-engineered words like "Hogwart" to create the French version "Poudlard" (lit. bacon lice). Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 9:58
  • Update: Back in May 18, Google didn't recognise "Tolkien's Guide to Names". Now, it does. I promise, it wasn't me who jiggered Google! Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 20:17

This is, indeed, the translator's job.

For example, here's Gili Bar-Hilel, talking about translating the Harry Potter books into Hebrew:

Fantasy books are often full of imaginary words created by the author and I am curious how you go about translating such words. Do you rewrite them in Hebrew, make up your own words to replace them, or use some other method?

GB: I play it by ear, depending on my understanding of the original. When an author is as playful and inventive as Rowling, I feel the translation should be playful and inventive as well, and I enjoy making up my own words. But sometimes invented words are just a brand name or something pseudo-scientific, and the Hebrew should follow that as well.

That being said, translators may be constrained by the translations of previous books in a series -- I've heard them complain about clumsy choices made by their predecessors...


Who cares, and why would they? I suggest Tolkien's guide posed no problem whatever for any translator.

All names have meaning in their original languages and that meaning might be ignored, copied or translated into any or every other language.

As an obvious instance English Linda is a direct copy from Spanish, where it means lovely. In India, whatever their native language, some women are given exactly that Lovely as their first name, and why not?

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