Many of you will have heard about the challenge of translating ‘Hodor’, and some of the inventive solutions that the various translators came up with. But there are many other terms in A Game of Thrones which also caused issues for translators. Many translation problems in A Game of Thrones were caused by neologisms, these are new words or phrases, or new meanings for existing words or phrases.

Translating Neologisms in A Game of Thrones

As part of my MA in Translation Studies, I wrote my dissertation on the way that neologisms are translated in the French and Spanish versions of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I found that the books are full of words and phrases invented by George R.R. Martin. In fact, I found well over one hundred neologisms in just the first half of the first book!

Authors often use neologisms in fantasy literature to create new places, concepts and things. This is because these new things help to create distance from reality and make the fantasy world seem stranger. Martin takes this one step further by also renaming everyday things, Oxford dictionaries have named this process ‘side formation’. For example, Martin uses ‘Ser’ instead of ‘Sir’, ‘winesink’ instead of ‘pub’, and ‘common’ instead of ‘general public’.

Strategies for dealing with neologisms

There are a number of ways in which translators can deal with neologisms, including:

  • using the original neologism without changes
  • adapting the original neologism to fit the normal pronunciation or spelling of the target language
  • recreating the original neologism in the target language
  • creating a different neologism in the target language
  • using an existing word from the target language with a similar meaning
  • explaining the term
  • deleting the neologism
  • using a combination of the above methods.

Interestingly, in my study, I found that the most common method of dealing with a neologism was to just replace it with a similar word which already exists. Another frequently used method was to simply use the English term, particularly in cases of character and place names. Having said that, the second most common procedure was to recreate the neologism. I also found some very clever, creative solutions in both the French and Spanish translations.

Despite some excellent solutions, the French translation was heavily criticised, especially by those who had already read the book in English. The complaints mainly focused on Jean Sola’s archaic, formal style and inconsistency in either keeping English names or translating them. For example, Sola decided not to change ‘Winterfell’ or ‘Westeros’, but he did translate ‘Casterly Rock’ and ‘Highgarden’.

Examples

Below is a selection of some of the more interesting —both good and bad— translations of neologisms that I found. I have included a literal back-translation of the French and Spanish terms where possible.

English French Back-translation of French Spanish Back-translation of Spanish
direwolf loup-garou werewolf lobo huargo warg wolf
Winterfell Winterfell n/a Invernalia No direct translation, but something like Winterland. Also reminiscent of ancient festivals, such as Saturnalia.
shadowcat lynx lynx gatosombra shadowcat
Blackwater Rush Néra No direct translation. Néra/Nera is the name of several rivers and nero/a means black in Italian. Aguasnegras Blackwaters
sept septuaire A blend of sanctuaire (sanctuary) and Sept. septo septum (!)
Starfall forteresse des Météores Meteor fortress Campoestrella Starfield
weirwood barral A French surname and old term for barrel. arciano No direct translation, but possibly a combination of arbol (tree), anciano (old man), and arcano (mystery).
small council Conseil restreint Small/select council (from comité restreint- select committee) Consejo Privado del rey the King's Privy Council
Riverrun Riverrun n/a Aguasdulces Freshwaters
master of coin Grand Argentier Grand Argentier is a nickname for Finance Minister. consejero de la moneda minister/adviser of the coin
Dragonstone Peyredragon Dragonstone (peyre means stone in Occitan, although many readers may not know this) Rocadragon Dragonrock
merling Triton Triton sirena mermaid
barrowlands la région des tertres the region of (burial) mounds los Túmulos the Tumuli (burial mounds)
Heartsbane Corvenin Heartvenom (cor means heart in Latin, but this may not be obvious to readers, especially since it means horn or callus in French) Veneno de Corazon Heart Venom
sourleaf surelle surelle means sour in Old French. hojamarga A blend of hoja (leaf) and amarga (bitter).
southron bougres du sud wretches from the South sureño southerner
bloodriders sang-coureurs blood-runners (coureur also means womaniser) jinetes de sangre blood riders