New Theme! What do you think?

Study, speak, and hang out with fellow Elvish students!

Challenges in Translating Names from Our World

Translating names from our world into Tolkien’s elven languages is difficult. It’s difficult for a lot of reasons, some that you probably didn’t realize. This is also why I deleted the “Names from Our World” namelist, and switched to handling the names on an individual basis.

Names often have very complex histories. Take the name Katie. It’s short for Katherine. It has a debated etymology. It comes to us from ancient Greek, being either a name meaning “each of the two” or related to the Goddess Hecate (more on that later), or it was borrowed into ancient Greek from a Coptic language, and meant “my consecration of your name.” And to make things more complex, the name was modified by the Christians, turning the T to a TH to make it sound like the word for “pure.” Of all these meanings, which is “the translation of the name?”

To deal with this problem, I just ask the person which meaning they’d like to go by. Sometimes they have a folk etymology meaning that they have their heart set on, so I go with that instead.

Sometimes names are made up from nothing, or their meanings have been lost to time. Lots of people these days get names from their favorite fantasy novels, which may or may not have some conlanging work done on them. If they don’t… well… the name has no meaning. Or, the name is so ancient that whatever track it took to get to the modern day has been washed away, and we can’t tell what it meant. So… how does one translate a name with no meaning?

I take two different approaches to this: Either I “Sindarinize” or “Quenyaize” the name, to make it sound like an Elf is saying it, or I ask the person to choose a meaning that they want, in the style of Elven Cilmessi.

Names that contain other names in them, like deities’ names, other people’s names, ethnicities, and place names are always the most difficult to get right. These deities, peoples, and places don’t exist in Middle-earth. So, what should be the stand-in?

  • Do I try to make a cultural equivalent? But, there often aren’t exact matches, so does that change the meaning too much? Is that disrespectful to the culture the name comes from?
  • Or do I try to translate the second name? But that often makes a long, clumsy name with an awkward meaning.
  • Or leave it untranslated? Perhaps the phonology of the name won’t work in the target language, or it could accidentally already be another word in the target language with a different meaning.

For example, let’s look at biblical names that mention God. They often include the elements “El” from “El Elyon” or “Jo/Iah” for the first letter of YHWH, Yah. So, how do we translate names with these elements in them?

Cultural Equivalent

One common approach is to translate these names as “Eru Ilúvatar,” the One Father of All. The problem is that Eru Ilúvatar created the Ainur, who are like subordinate gods, all with their own parts of Eä to look after; so equating Eru to a monotheistic god could be problematic to some people. Tolkien took this approach when translating his Catholic prayers from Latin – though he left other names like “Maria” and “Jesus Christ” untranslated.

Meaning

El Elyon means “the highest god.” The “El” which is what his name is often reduced to, therefore can be translated as “a god.” There are two words that mean this roughly in Quenya – Ainu (holy one) and Vala (divine power) – and two words that mean this roughly in Sindarin – Balan (divine power) and Rodon (high/noble one).

YHWH’s meaning is not certain. It could mean “I am that I am,” but seriously, we’re not even sure how to pronounce this name, let alone what it means. But, this is what we have to work with. Elvish names don’t have sentences in them like Hebrew names do, so this could be translated as Eäla (Existing One) in Quenya. Sindarin doesn’t really have a word that means “exist” like Quenya does. The closest is the fanmade word *Nas (Being).

Untranslated

El Elyon was often shortened to “El” in names. This word means “Star” or “Elf” in Tolkien’s elven languages, so it isn’t too bad.

YHWH was often shortened to “Yah” in names, and to make it match Quenya phonology it’d become “Ya” and in Sindarin “Ia.” In Quenya, it’s not much of a problem in names because you don’t find the relative pronoun ya in names. In Sindarin though, there is a very similar word, which becomes ia in names, (as in Moria) that means “chasm.” Not the worst coincidence, but it could make for some weird names.

So, as you can see, this is a quagmire, and the reason why I no longer have a pre-done list of names on the website. It’s also the reason that I prefer to do names on a case-by-case basis. Maybe I could be arm-twisted into doing a new “recommended translations” list, but for now, that’s pretty far down my priorities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.