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I couldn't find an answer from the SE archives, so here goes. I'm doing a rough translation of a published novel of mine into English (from a Nordic language), and I'm left scratching my head about character names, because they'd look AND moreover sound unnatural to an English-speaking audience, especially from a phonotactical viewpoint--two vowels where English would always have one, consonants that'd never appear next to each other in English, etc.

Besides looking unnatural, it's more often than not going to make the pronunciation a puzzle ("is it Sig-nay, Sin-yay, Sayg-nee, Sighny, or something else?"). And if that wasn't enough, one of my characters has a name with no semantic meaning in the original language, but one in English that sounds plain silly! (akin to, "Raccoons stepped out and lit a cigarette.")

So what do you think--or rather, what's the norm--, should I try to walk a fine line between modifying the names just so that they'd sound more Americanized, but still foreign enough, or just keep everything as is, including the names with umlauts in them?

Thanks!

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This partly depends on other decisions you're making (or have already made) during the translation process.

If the setting of the novel is not meant to be especially Nordic (e.g. if the original is set in Scandinavia but you're going to set the translated version in America, or if it's set in a fantasy world which isn't associated with any particular real-world country), then you can anglicise the names. There's no particular point, in this case, in leaving a lot of character names which will be unfamiliar to much of your audience. You're making your readers do extra work in understanding, for no particular payoff.

In other words, if the story would work exactly the same with characters called Jack or Kirsty instead of Håkon or Kjersti, then change them.

If your story has a Nordic setting even in the translated version (e.g. you want to keep it set in Scandinavia, or in a sci-fi future with a planet colonised by Nordic explorers), then that would be a good reason to keep the original names: for authenticity. If you want to keep the Nordic theme in your story, then you'll need to work much harder to achieve that effect if your characters are called Jack or Kirsty than if even their names are giving your American readers that Nordic vibe.

Of course, this leaves the problem of pronunciation difficulties for your readers. A simple way around this is to include a pronunciation guide, a quick page at the start or end of your book. Readers can refer to this to make sure they're getting the pronunciation right. It's a tried and tested technique for stories set in imaginary worlds with lots of completely alien names (again, the point of using unfamiliar names in this context is to give the readers the vibe of foreignness), and it should work for you too.

If part of the point is to show your readers a Nordic setting, then they'll be more willing to do just a little work (reading a handy pronunciation guide) for added authenticity.

The one exception to this is if you have a character with a name that sounds really funny or weird in English, as that would break the immersion. (I can't think of a good example from Scandinavian languages, but as the joke goes, Fuk Yu might be a perfectly OK name in some languages.) If you have a name like "Raccoons" as you mentioned, then maybe change just that one name (to another genuinely Nordic name) in the translated version.

  • Thank you, that was really comprehensive. For clarification, it's a contemporary story in a purely Nordic setting. I'm aware of pronunciation guides, but to me they harken back to books printed 40-50 years ago or more---but that's only me, of course, and I'm surely willing to consider using one; the thought just never crossed my mind. OTOH, I'll still need to alter that one character name's a little, because all the authenticity will surely take a backseat if you have to read about someone unintentionally named Raccoons or Mackerels. – Jav55 Nov 17 at 8:17
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    @Jav55 Examples of more recent books with pronunciation guides include the Wheel of Time and Eragon series (both fantasy - that's the main thing I read, so my go-to choice for examples :-) ). – Rand al'Thor Nov 17 at 8:22

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