You’ve probably heard of languages like Klingon, Dothraki, Parseltongue or many other fictional languages created for a story in a book, movie or TV series. But do you know anything about them apart from where they are used? If you want to learn a bit more for the next time your friends talk about Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, you’ve come to the right place.
Elvish actually refers to all languages spoken by Elves, but only Quenya and Sindarin have enough grammar and vocabulary developed to be considered learnable. Tolkien started constructing his first Elvish language between 1910 and 1911, and the books came out in 1954. This puts into perspective the struggle of creating a language. During those 44 years, the language changed and evolved until it was ready for the book. He even took things a step further and created scripts for his Elvish languages. The complexity of the languages made them the benchmark in the world of fictional languages. Heck, even Tolkien himself said that Elvish is too complicated, and that he never intended for people to speak it.
George Orwell created this fictional language for his dystopian novel 1984. This fascinating novel paints an incredible picture of how the language we speak can affect the way we think. There can be no socially unacceptable thoughts if there are no words you can use to express such thoughts. In the language, there are no words with negative meaning. For example, the only way to say “bad” is through the word “ungood”, and something especially bad is called “doubleplusungood”. This fictional language was very simplified, which fits in with the purpose of the novel amazingly.
Many believe that Dothraki was created by the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin. However, Martin actually only roughly described the language in his books and used some Dothraki words throughout his story (54 words to be exact, half being names). It was, in fact, David J. Peterson who was hired specifically to develop the language exclusively for the TV show from the small amount provided by Martin. He was a part of a competition that was held among language creators and after he won, it took him a month to come up with the language.
Peterson was also the one who developed High Valyrian, for which he only had four words and two sentences from the book to work with.
Klingon is the official language from the Star Trek franchise spoken by a warrior race. It was never intended for it to become a completely developed language, but it quickly took off and now there is an actual Klingon Language Institute which helps people learn Klingon. James Doohan, who played Scotty in Star Trek, was the one who created the first Klingon words for the first Star Trek movie, after which Marc Okrand was hired to create the language. He wanted it to be as complicated as possible, so that it sounds extraterrestrial. This led to the word order in a sentence feel backwards: object-verb-subject. This would make the English sentence “I see a dog” be translated as “A dog see I” in Klingon.
Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet was translated into Klingon.
All who watched Harry Potter grow up throughout the movies and read about his adventures in the books are already familiar with Parseltongue. Those who speak it are called Parselmouths. It’s actually almost exclusively a hereditary trait, Harry being one of the exceptions. Since it is a language of serpents, it mostly consists of hissing sounds, similar to those of a snake. It doesn’t have a written form and J.K. Rowling only vaguely described it in the books. Parseltounge is not simple, but it’s very concise. Snakes are known for being shady and manipulative, and the language nicely represents those features. The language is built so that one can create only short sentences, consisting solely of the subject, object and verb. The complete meaning of a sentence must be interpreted by the listener based on their knowledge, context or clues.
One of the main reasons for the global obsession with minions is the way they speak. They use simplified words from many languages, such as English, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Russian, and French. The creators of the language, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, who directed the Despicable Me movies and also voiced the minions, say they basically improvised the language by combining multiple languages from around the world. That is why we can hear words like la boda (wedding – Spanish), Terima Kasih (thank you – Indonesian) and, of course, banana.
I am Groot.
Would you like to learn a fictional language or even make your own? What's your favorite fiction novel or movie?
Translating is hard as it is, but how do translators cope with non-existent terms like wizarding, an essential part of Harry Potter? Check out in our blog post.
For those of you who don't know, Harry Potter is the main protagonist in a series of fantasy novels written by J.K. Rowling. In a nutshell, he and his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and every now and then they confront Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter's archenemy.
The increasing popularity of the book, increased the need for its translation all over the world. As you may know, the books are packed with invented names for spells, potions, alleys and basically everything connected to the wizarding world. But what you may not know, or even think about, is the difficulties most translators have with such non-existent terms, especially since there were no instructions given to the translators regarding Rowling's motives for each invented word. This lead to different takes and interpretations for each language, even in different editions of the same target-language.
The most obvious example for that is the fact that the original name Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the UK turned into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the US. The reasoning for it might have more to do with the publishers and their opinion on what would be a more attractive title in the US, but it proves the point in the most obvious way.
We can see different takes in other languages as well, such as Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers (Harry Potter at the School of Wizards) in French, or Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen in German and Harry Potter i kamen mudraca in Croatian (both translated into Harry Potter and the Stone of the Wise Men). But that's just the title.
Harry Potter fans know that many characters from the series have names that reveal a lot about that character. For instance, Severus Snape. Severus has apparent connotations with strictness and severity, and Snape sounds like snake, and, of course, the alliteration is obvious. Therefore, you can see how it might represent a problem in translation. For that reason, the Italians opted for Severus Piton (Python), and the French for Severus Rogue (arrogant), both sacrificing alliteration for meaning. Most, however, stuck to the original, losing the meaning in the process.
The same happened with translating Moaning Myrtle, who, for example, became Plačljiva Myrtla (crying Myrtle) in Croatian, but some languages cleverly managed to maintain the alliteration, such as Mirtilla Malcontenta (unhappy Myrtle) in Italian or Hisztis Myrtle (hysterical Myrtle) in Hungarian.
The translators surely had an interesting time translating the real name of Lord Voldemort, Tom Marvolo Riddle, which eventually must create an anagram for "I am Lord Voldemort". So let's see several examples of the result:
- Tom Elvis Jedusor --> Je suis Voldemort (I am Voldemort), French
- Tom Rowle Denem --> Nevem Voldemort (My name is Voldemort), Hungarian
- Tom Rojvol Raddle --> Já, lord Voldemort (I, Lord Voldemort), Czech
Some versions, however, opted for the original name with a footnote explaining the anagram.
This is, naturally, only a brief analysis focused on names of characters, but the examples are endless for every edition. It's the translator's job to transfer the story into a target-language to the best of his/her abilities. But what can one do when there is no exact translation equivalent? Something must be sacrificed. Which means that every translated book is written at least twice; by the author and by the translator who must adapt it. It can make you wonder just how much of the source text remains lost in translation.