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If you ever had to translate anything, it’s likely you came upon one of translation’s most quoted rules: “Never translate personal names”. As with many rules, this is true in a number of circumstances, but there are also many exceptions. It all depends on what exactly you are translating.

My main area of expertise is fiction. Now, in fiction, the translation of personal names is a complex issue. Generally speaking, “ordinary” personal names shouldn’t be translated. My own name, Ernesto, is of Spanish origin, and it shouldn’t become “Ernest” if I’m mentioned in an English discussion. A character named “Mary” she doesn’t become “Marie” in the French translation of the novel. The same goes for family names: it would be its own kind of madness to translate “Smith” as “Fabbri” while working from English to Italian.

As I told you, there are expection to the rule. They mostly come up in speculative fiction, particularly when dealing with meaningful names. Those are quite common in two specific genres: fantasy and science ficiton.

In fantasy, meaningful names may have the role of honorifics or express a character’s reputation: a powerful warrior might be known as “Skullsplitter” or “Steelhand”, for example. But there are novels where every character (or at least a good number of them) is named meaningfully: such is the case of Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, where all the Returned have names such as Lightsong or Blushweaver. Such is the case of Stormbringer, Elric’s demon sword in Michael Moorcock’s stories. How does a translator deal with such situations?

My phylosophy is that meaningful names in fantasy need to be translated. Even when they work as personal names, such as in Warbreaker. The reason is simple: fantasy is modern epic, and epic characters’ names must be understandable. Obscure names lose their suggestive power. If I don’t know what “Shadow” or “Stormbringer” means, I might not understand those characters completely. I might get a good idea by reading the novels, but without knowing that “Stormbringer” means “someone or something who brings the storm” (a metaphor for cosmic disorder), I might fail to appreciate what the writer is trying to tell me (in Stormbringer’s case, that the sword has its own agenda. Notice the participle: it’s the sword who brings the storm, not its wielder).

Suspension of disbelief is another motivation to translate meaningful names. Finding an English name in a fantasy novel translated into Italian is confusing at best. To get an idea, imagine reading an epic novel filled with poetry and strong images… only to find a character named “Redentore”. Since you don’t know Italian, you have no clue about that name. If you don’t know that it means “Redeemer”, you might be confused and even miss a good chunk of the novel’s deepest meanings. Why, in a perfect English prose, do you have to stumble on an Italian name? Why hasn’t it been translated like everything else?

Now, science fiction is a different animal. Meaningful names exist there, too… but most of them are better left untranslated, especially the English ones (I’m not talking about translation into English, of course).

The reason is simple: English is, more often than not, the international language of technology and IT. Most people would expect a spaceship, gadget or tool to have an English name. Therefore, just like “Samsung Galaxy” doesn’t become “Samsung Galassia” in Italian, and “Internet” has (to my knowledge) never been translated, so English names in science fiction should be left as they are. There are exceptions, of course: I would probably left a technology’s name unchanged, but I would translate an individual ship’s name, especially if it was relevant to the plot. As always, contest is the key: if a name adds a level of meaning to the story, then it needs to be understandable. Otherwise, it might as well not be there.

As you can see, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to the translation of personal names. As with many other things in the world of translations, it falls to the translator to make the right choice.

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