There’s this weird misconception that translating a name should be a simple one-to-one process. That a translator should be able to just supply you with an Elven name, like you’re asking for the Sindarin word for “hat” (Carab, by the way). But, there’s so much more to it than that, which makes translating names one of the funnest and most challenging aspects of what I do.
This new series of articles, “Your Name in Elvish” will give you a peek into the process of translating names with a new series of articles about popular names.
Before I start, I want to give you a few thoughts to ruminate on. Names are deeply tied to the cultures that create them. Thus, trying to bring a name from one culture to another, even if that culture is fictional, isn’t simple.
In our culture, the meaning of the name is either forgotten or unimportant. What matters is the association with who had that name before you. Case in point – Adolf. It’s a lovely name, used to be used all throughout Europe. Then WWII happened, and that name was tainted with the association with one of the worst people in history. No longer was it the name of your grandfather, it was the name of the murderous bastard who tried to kill you and everyone you loved. Meanwhile, many “Ted”s can owe the popularity of their name to President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. The fact that Adolf is an ancient Germanic name that means “noble wolf” and that Theodore is a name from ancient Greek that means “Gift of God” isn’t known to most. What matters is the emotions such names conjure up in our hearts.
The Elves didn’t have this approach to naming. Tolkien designed their naming system to be more like the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The names had meaning, often deeply connected to who the person was. A name wasn’t just something to call someone, it was describing who they were.
All this musing is a way to say that I’m going to do a series of articles posted weekly where I break down the etymology of a popular name, then try to translate it into Sindarin and Quenya. The resources that I have are skewed heavily to English and European names, just because resources on those are often in languages I can read.
So, if you find that the ancient, forgotten meaning of your name doesn’t suit you at all, don’t be afraid to just go to the lists designed for naming your characters and choose a name with a meaning that you prefer. That is an entirely Elven way to approach it.
If you’d like your name translated in this series, comment below and I’ll consider it for a future article!