Language Matters - August 7, 2023 - 6 min

Making It Up: Coinages and Translations in Fiction

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like proper nouns such as names should have to be translated. After all, many names serve simply to identify a specific person or thing, almost like a barcode. This function gives names what linguists call their referential quality.

However, many fiction authors don’t just name things for practical purposes; they use names to communicate something. Consider, for example, how you might feel about a character named Mary in comparison to a character named Maria or Margaretta or even Mary of the Noble House of Horses. The decisions translators make when faced with original words and names in a text can be complicated. Do they simply copy over the names in the original text, or do they provide something more relevant to the target language? The answer often depends on the individual translator’s style and the languages involved.

This dilemma is further complicated when translating fantasy and other works with names made up by the author for the purpose of the story. In this case, providing a simple equivalent is not an option—no translation dictionary will help here! Think about how the first translators of Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland may have felt when faced with words like Gryffindor or Mad Hatter.

This being said, there is a range of options when translating proper nouns and made-up words.1 In this article, we will look into how translators (especially translators of English and French) use the innate properties of language in order to bring creative works of fiction from one language to another.

Where Authors Start

In order to understand how character names and made-up words can be translated, it helps to understand how they are made up in the first place. When naming an entity that is specific to a story, a writer has several things to consider.

Firstly, new words can’t be just an arbitrary string of letters. Consider the following examples:

ghgevmugvhhhgdesjm = not a word

hbdvf = still not a word

gkljbvg = still no!

What separates these random strings of letters from actual words is a set of organizational patterns called phonology. These patterns also govern what sounds can be grouped together to create words (these patterns are studied in a subdomain of phonology called phonotactics). There are some universally accepted principles of phonology—all languages have vowels, for example. Every word, no matter how strange, must obey these rules in order to sound like it was created by a human (no promises are made in the present article about the phonology of aliens).

For example, names like Hogwarts and Muggle (to borrow two more examples from the Harry Potter series) are instinctively accepted by English speakers as words: they are pronounceable even if they are unfamiliar. This is because they follow the well-established rules of English phonology. For example, if you wanted to make up a word for a story you were writing, all of the following are perfectly acceptable possibilities:

Scrance

Stemper

Crish

Bogmash

These made-up words work because they look a lot like normal English words. In fact, some of them are only a sound or two away from other words (as in crish/crash, or Muggle/struggle). These types of word pairs are called minimal pairs by linguists, since they differ by only one basic sound (called a phoneme). Still others are English words mashed together, which can also be called compounds (as in Bogmash or Hogwarts).

That being said, simply following the rules of a language’s phonology won’t give an author all the tools they need to create a convincing and unique lexicon. They also need to be able to use phonesthemes.2 A phonestheme is a collection of sounds that is associated with a particular emotion or a general impression. A group of phonesthemes may not have any etymological association with one another. These groups of consonants and other segments capture a word’s feeling rather than its actual meaning.

A good example of this comes from the Harry Potter series. The character name Snape starts with the consonant cluster sn, which carries “vaguely unpleasant connotations”.2 Even though J.K. Rowling herself claims to have named the character after a town, the fact that Snape sounds like sneer, snail, snake, sneak, and snipe is hard to ignore. Another made-up name in Harry Potter that uses the concept of phonesthemes to its advantage is Quirrel, which evokes both squirrel and quarrel, which both communicate something about the nervousness of the character.

Going from one language to another

After an author has produced coinages for their fiction, by considering how sounds work in their native language and the different connotations they have, a translator then has to figure out how to take all of these words (and their connotations!) and make them work in an entirely different linguistic and cultural context. Even translating between languages that seem relatively similar, such as English and French, can pose a challenge. There are lots of sounds in English that don’t exist in French and vice versa. The sounds /th/ and /h/, which are very common in English, aren’t part of French. Therefore, simply transposing Hogwarts from English to French may not be the best choice—while this translation would be closer to the original text, it would be unpronounceable to French readers. In addition, the fact that it is composed of hog + wart(s) would not be transparent to the French audience. Perhaps because of these concerns, the French translator of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Jean-François Ménard, translated Hogwarts as Poudlard, which is a portmanteau of pou (“louse”) and lard (“lard” or “pig”). Because J.K. Rowling’s original compounding strategy was adopted, the French translation remains just as semantically charged as the original word.

However, even the best of intentions can go a little awry in translation. For example, the Italian translator of Harry Potter translated Professor Snape’s name as Piton, meaning “snake”. Whether such a literal translation evokes an equivalent response in the reader is up for debate—did the Italian translator really manipulate meaning in the same way as the original author if the new text has a Professor Snake?

Making things sound foreign on purpose

Even with these powerful tools, authors don’t only borrow from the toolbox available to them in their own languages when inventing words for a story. Using the phonology (the set of specific sound patterns) of a foreign language can create an impression of strangeness or otherworldliness. For example, in the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, the main character and the members of his gang use a strange sort of slang they call Nadsat. The author of the text, Anthony Burgess, used a variety of techniques to create an anti-language, which is a deliberately obscure lexicon used by a group that sets itself up as antithetical to society.3

The techniques used to create Nadsat can be classified into the categories below. Some of them (like compounding), were also used in the Harry Potter series, but because the desired effect is strange and threatening instead of magical and inviting, Burgess used some other methods as well.

Technique Example Meaning
Archaisms thou you
Baby Talk eggiweg egg
Compounding sleepland asleep
Truncation/Shortening guff guffaw
Rhyming Slang pretty polly rhymes with lolly, slang for money
Creative Morphology appetitish appetizing

However, the main contributing component to Nadsat is Russian vocabulary. The word Nadsat itself is the Russian equivalent of -teen (as in nineteen). Much of Nadsat is fairly straightforward transliteration from Russian such as in the case of droog, which is an approximation of the Russian for “friend”, друг. Using a Russian-inspired anti-language meshed well with the linguistic and political context of the time: A Clockwork Orange was published at the height of the Cold War. However, there are certain influences from French and German that also contribute to the strangeness of the text.

The French translators Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier collaborated directly with Burgess in order to create a French translation that captured the spirit of the English text, adapting techniques that Burgess used in English to invent an anti-language that meshes well with the linguistic context of French at the time. It did help that French was in a similar context to English (with respect to the Cold War, that is); however, the French and German words had to be rewritten, along with most of the words formed using the six techniques above (French doesn’t have rhyming slang, for example). To illustrate, starry, meaning “old”, is translated as viokcha, which is adapted from the French vioc, a term used to refer to an old person or to a parent.3

Finishing the story

The adaptation of Burgess’s original techniques along with a solid comprehension of the source text’s intended effects is what made the French translation of A Clockwork Orange so successful. These same factors are what made the French translation of Harry Potter just as effective.

The contrast between these two cases lies mainly in whether the translators manipulated phonology and morphology to be either familiar or unfamiliar, inviting or threatening. The challenge of carrying these stories from one language to another highlights the creativity that translators must have along with the subtle details that make word creation such a powerful literary tool.

Understanding how authors use language to manipulate our impressions of their story not only lends us an appreciation of their art, but also gives us insight into the interaction of the science of language (phonology and phonotactics) and the art of language (the literary process). Writing will always be the sum of both our cognition and our aesthetics. Next time you read a novel with new words, we hope you stop to consider the work that went into creating them, especially if they have been translated from another language.


  1. Feral, Anne-Lise. (2006) The Translator’s ‘Magic’ Wand: Harry Potter’s Journey from English into French. Meta. 51(3), 459-481. https://doi.org/10.7202/013553ar Retrieved July 2023.  

  2. Ericka Mussche and Klaas Willems Fred or farīd, bacon or bayḍun (‘egg’)? Proper Names and Cultural-specific Items in the Arabic Translation of Harry Potter (https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/meta/2010-v55-n3-meta3963/045066ar.pdf)  

  3. Vincent, Benet. & Clarke, Jim. (2020). Nadsat in translation: A Clockwork Orange and L’Orange Mécanique. Meta, 65(3), 643–664. https://doi.org/10.7202/1077407ar Retrieved July 2023.  

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