When is a dwarf not a dwarf? When he’s a garden gnome…

Read on for a great piece from the talented Sally-Ann Spencer on her experience of translating The Dwarves (UK/ US/ ANZ) and The War of the Dwarves (UK/ US / ANZ) from the original German:

Turning German ‘Zwerge’ into English-speaking dwarves isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. For one thing, the English word ‘dwarf’ has two possible plurals: ‘dwarfs’ and ‘dwarves’. Which should be used for the translation? The dwarves of Girdlegard bear a certain resemblance to their counterparts in Middle Earth, so I went with the version popularized by Tolkien. But hang on a minute, where does the word ‘Girdlegard’ come from? Readers of German know the dwarves’ homeland as ‘das Geborgene Land’, which means the ‘safe’, ‘secure’ or ‘snug’ land. Unlike the English equivalent, ‘Das Geborgene Land’ sounds right for a fantasy world and conjures up various associations that can’t be evoked by ‘safe’ or any other English adjective. Halfway through translating the first volume, I came up with an alternative English name that focuses on conveying the symbolic meaning: Girdlegard, which echoes the ‘g’ of the German name and alludes to the double girdle protecting the dwarves’ homeland.

My next dilemma concerned the translation of the characters’ names. Most of the forenames could be left as they were in the German (e.g. Boëndal, Gandogar, Lot-Ionan and so forth), while the family names and monikers required a more creative approach: Boëndal Hookhand (originally, Pinnhand), Gandogar Silverbeard (originally, Silberbart), Lot-Ionan the Forbearing (originally, Lot-Ionan der Geduldige) etc. Of course, it could be argued that names should never be translated, but it seemed to me that names with a descriptive or symbolic function should preserve that function in the translated text. Nudin’s transformation from Nudin der Wissbegierige to Nod’ônn der Zweifache would mean little to readers of English, whereas the switch from Nudin the Knowledge-Lusty to Nod’ônn the Doublefold reveals the change in his character. Equally, it is important for the reader to understand the change described by Rodario’s metamorphosis from the Fabulous Rodario to Rodario the Fablemaker.

Some of the creatures of Girdlegard are peculiar to Heitz’s books. The dark elves, for example, are called ‘Albae’ (singular: ‘Alb’) in German. ‘Alb’ is similar to the old German word for elf (‘Elb’) and is also linked to the German word for nightmare (‘Alptraum’) since the ‘Alb’ of German mythology spreads bad dreams. After trying and failing to come up with an equivalent in English, I decided to focus on finding a word that would convey the Albae’s relationship with the elves. I couldn’t very well call them alves (singular: alf!) so I settled for älfar (singular: älf), which has echoes of the álfar of Norse mythology and sounds similar to elf. Other creatures invented by Heitz include gugul, for which I kept the original name.

I am very grateful to Markus for helping with the translation and discussing the finer points of nomenclature. Translators are required to read and ponder every word of the original text, thereby subjecting it to unusual scrutiny. Most people would not stop to worry whether the plucky group of travellers is heading south or southwest, but to the translator, who has to visualize and reconstruct the journey, it is vitally important. I pestered Markus with pedantic questions about geography, chronology and so forth, and together we corrected several small slips that had evaded the German copy-editors (sadly, I probably compensated by making slips of my own). Markus writes faster than anyone I know, and the ‘Dwarves’ series now includes four volumes with a fifth volume focusing on the älfar. Rumours abound about a sixth.

For my part, I still see dwarves wherever I go, especially among the flowerbeds. This is extremely puzzling as we refer to these creatures in English as ‘garden gnomes’. In German, they are ‘Gartenzwerge’ or garden dwarves.