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Problems with Names

Complaining about the names authors give to their characters may seem to be a little silly – after all, they are the authors, it’s their decision, it is probably based on something and has some purpose – but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that lots and lots of writers could have done much better if they actually asked somebody what they think about their idea of calling a character in this particular way. Yes, it may have seemed like an extremely clever idea to call them Go (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) or Seldom (The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez), but it just reads and sounds awful without actually adding anything to the meaning.

wrong names

The reasons for weird and outright poor choice of names are numerous and depend on the author. Sometimes they create a character from a culture foreign to them without bothering to learn a little bit about their naming conventions or at least ask somebody belonging to this culture to give an example of a plausible name, which results in all kinds of weirdness, like Gahalowood (presumably American) or Ushakovo (presumably Russian surname).

Sometimes it’s not the author’s fault – the name simply changes its connotations in the course of time. It may (especially if it is a diminutive form) gain a meaning of its own; bonus points if this meaning is funny or distracting (cringe-inducing Panty derived from Anthea inn Five Children by E. Nesbit).

Or it may have acquired a different coloring after all these years. For example, when Charlotte Bronte named her main heroine of her eponymous novel Shirley, it was a rather rare and, what is more important, male name. It was not unintentional – she has many clearly masculine qualities; but today Shirley has a much more feminine sound about it, which deletes the initial intent of the author. Dora and Noel from Murdoch’s The Bell were the names of young energetic people – but they are not perceived as such anymore.

Sometimes problems occur with translation. If naming conventions in the culture of the original are too different from Anglo-Saxon ones we are in for a lot of fun trying to distinguish between full and diminutive forms, different variants of address and so on. Russian Zhenya and Volodya sound nothing like Eugeni and Vladimir, immediately understandable for Russian readers and completely obscure for those unfamiliar with them.

Sometimes translators go as far as to change the names altogether – either to avoid a too-foreign name that will be hard to remember or in case the original name sounds funny or even obscene in the target language. But at times this decision is hard to justify. For example, in one of the first English translations of Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter the eponymous Ronia was for reasons unknowable renamed into Kirsty.

So, the names always were and still are a great part of any work of fiction, and writers shouldn’t leave them to chance. The name should reflect the character’s personality and play its own role. It shouldn’t be given in a hurry.

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