Lost In Translation: Character Names in Fiction

Photo by Loren Javier

“To la pâtisserie and beyond!” Buzz L’Éclair might cry as he raises his mighty fist in the air and prepares to save the world from…uh, we don’t know, healthy snacks? Ask the French, that’s their translation for Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear. Why? Qui sait? Maybe because Buzz L’Anné-Lumière is a bit lengthy. Sometimes a character name’s meaning is lost in translation, meaning nothing to foreign consumers. This is particularly true for Jonsonian names, which are names that suggest something about the character. Mr. Murdstone sounds fairly sinister, combining the first syllable of murder with stone, and he was a real rotter toward the young David Copperfield. But how do you convey that meaning to non-English-speakers?

For reasons that are generally pretty obscure for the average fiction fan – whether it comes by way of books, movies, TV shows, comic books, or cartoons – often the character names change along with the text and dialogue, leading many to wonder why Harry Potter became Haris Poteris in Lithuanian or how the Incredible Hulk became the Green Giant in Hong Kong. (No word yet on any potential lawsuits from B&G Foods. Maybe the Giant is safe because, if nothing else, no one will ever accuse this one of being jolly.)

It’s maybe easier to guess where the French came up with the translation Charlie le Coq (Charlie the Rooster) for a well-loved Warner Brothers character. Perhaps they were lost in translation for Foghorn Leghorn.

On the other hand, they might want to explain how anyone would feel comfortable being rescued by some clown who calls himself the Green Buffoon. Nos amis, do you really mean to tell us you have no translation for the English word Lantern?

Of course, these are the folks who turned Han Solo into Yan Solo and his walking carpet friend into Chikbakka or Chico for short.

But we don’t want to pick on the French too much. Also lost in translation were the Swedish who turned Batman into a biker badass named Leather Patch (Läderlappen) and the Italians who managed to transform Bart Simpson’s “Eat my shorts!” into “Suck your sock!” (Hey, we said sock, and don’t yell at us, apparently this is some kind of Italian insult.) The Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef becomes the Danish Chef for the Germans, in Poland it’s Tickle Me Bodzio, and Kermit the Frog is Capo a Sapo in Brazil. We’re not sure what that means but we’re pretty certain bodies disappear into the canal when he’s around.

Translation of character names can vary and sometimes be fraught with peril. Another language’s names may not connote the gender of the character – Luke Skywalker may not be obviously male to someone unfamiliar with the name Luke. Or the names can be too difficult for foreigners to pronounce, or, in a more complicated scenario, the name might perform a specific function that becomes lost in translation. In English, Tom Marvolo Riddle was an anagram of I Am Voldemort, an eventual key insight for Harry Potter. In French, the name became Tom Elvis Jedusor – to meet the anagram requirement Je suis Voldemort.

Sometimes character names are changed to give the story a more localized feel foreign readers can relate to, or to preserve the original intention of the name. In the French comic Asterix, character names are intentionally humourous in French, such as the bard Assurancetourix, or ‘comprehensive insurance’, nonsensical for a character in ancient Gaul. He was renamed Cacofonix for English-speakers which alludes to the word cacophony.

And sometimes, the changes are for inscrutable reasons that we have yet to figure out. There’s a great infographic on Buzzfeed showing the many different character name translations in popular movies, books, cartoons and comics, and you can see for yourself how much is won or lost in translation.


Too sexy for the United Nations!
Photo by JD Hancock on Flickr (background cropped)

Late-breaking superhero news: Wonder Woman (or Mirakelkvinnan, Miracle Woman as she’s known in Sweden) was body-shamed this past weekend on Twitter when “unnamed staffers” at the United Nations objected to the bodacious beauty’s skintight costume and knee-high boots after she was chosen as Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Wonder Woman is hardly the first fictitious fox to be a UN ambassador as feisty fairy Tinkerbell has served in the past. We wonder if perhaps UN staffers would be happier if they’d chosen new superhero upstart Burkha Avenger (yes, that’s a real thing).


Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company offering translations in 67 different languages and the ability to not translate your name, or your brand names, into something unpalatable. (Patented rules are cool!) For more information please contact sales@yappn.com or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.




Written by Cara Buckspan, Social Media Coordinator and Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn.

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