Sometimes good ideas are not.
Foreign-sounding names for characters, for instance.
Apart from the vaguely Welsh/Gaelic/Tolkienoid elves and the alphabet soup of Lovecraftian monsters (of which my favorite, if apocryphal, remains “Shuub-Wankalot”), a name can make or break a character.
A basic trick I was taught long ago when naming secondary characters in my fantasy stories is to select a geographic area that somehow has the same feel of the place from which my character comes, get a map, jot down a few place names, and then tweak them a little, moving vocals around or cutting and pasting names.
Et voilà, instant names for characters.
The method can backfire spectacularly – in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth we meet Frau Göteborg, as portrayed by gorgeous Arlene Dahl; the scriptwriters thought that, if London and Washington are legit family names for Brits and Yanks, then Swedish ladies could be called Göteborg, the second largest city in Sweden. They were wrong.
Much hilarity ensued when the movie was distributed in Sweden.
The name is Goteborg, Frau Goteborg.
But there’s an even more spectacular example of “foreign” sounding names backfiring. A case in which a fine, no indeed an excellent writer, played fast and loose with naming conventions, and probably having listened to a few opera records too many, created a surreal experience for some of his readers.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Karl Edward Wagner’s Conan and the Road of Kings.
Published in 1979 by Bantam Books, Conan and the Road of Kings is a good Conan apocryphal, set in the nation of Zingara.
Now, according to the Conan Wiki…
Several artists have taken the interpretation of Zingara being a knightly land of rapiers and honorable duels.
Yes, something halfway between Renaissance Italy and Spain – the capital city is Kordova, that sounds a lot like Córdoba, in Spain1.
Robert E. Howard also played fast and loose with naming conventions, in his time.
Karl Edward Wagner’s novel is a story full of intrigue, betrayal and political upheaval, and has Conan caught in a full-out revolution.
Which is fine. The plot is tight, there’s a lot of great action set-pieces, and if in the end this is the usual Conan story (Howard at his best was unique, no one can replicate that), K.E. Wagner’s skills and fire are still enough to make this a fun read.
The Conan wiki also provides us with a list of characters, and here’s where the problems – for some of us – begin. Because a lot of the guys have Italian phrases or idioms for names… let’s see…
Captain Rinnova – “renew”, that is. Santiddio, noble Zingarian seditionist leader – “Sant’iddio” is a curse, literally meaning “Holy God!”, used to express anger or frustration. Quite fitting for a seditionist leader, I guess. Mordermi, Zingarian brigand – his name means “Bite me”. Yes, this *is* embarrassing. Velio, Zingarian brigand – this is dubious: might be archaic Italian, “veglio” meaning “old man”, or modern Italian, meaning “I stay awake”. Rimanendo, Zingarian king – “Staying” or “Remaining” in Italian. The king is clearly very attached to his throne. Avvinti, noble Zingarian seditionist – little used (mostly in poetry and song), it means “tightly embraced”. Carico, Zingarian commoner seditionist – “loaded”. Sifino, Zingarian seditionist lieutenant – again an archaic form, “sì fino” is “so fine”, or “so subtle”. You want a fine subtle guy as a lieutenant in your sedition, I guess. Inzio, Half-Pictish trader – sounds suspiciously like “inizio”, “Beginning” in Italian. Destandasi, Zingarian sorceress – another unusual one, old fashioned “destandosi” means “waking up”. Vindicarmi, mercenary captain – sounds a little archaic (modern usage is “vendicarmi”), it means “avenge me”, or “take my revenge”. Obviously not the sort of guy you’d mess with.
The use of so many old-fashioned, rarely used Italian forms is what makes me suspect Wagner’s source was an opera. Instinctively, my chief suspect is Il Trovatore, but it’s just a hunch and I don’t have the libretto handy2.
In the above list, only the guy called Bite Me is not very operatic in tone – but I always suspected that was a jab at Lyon Sprague de Camp, that Wagner did not like very much, and that certainly knew enough Italian to get it.
I read Conan and the Road of Kings when I was in high school, in English.
I got the 1986 Sphere edition of the book, the one with the grim severed-head cover, and the first time one of those Italian words appeared on the page, it hit me like the proverbial truck.
Talk about suspension of disbelief, shattered.
Because Italian is my first language, of course, and back in high school I was just starting as a reader in English. It was slow and sometimes painful, and every time Mordermi appeared on the page I would chuckle and be automatically ejected from the story.
In the end, I forced myself to shift the accents… not Mòrdermi but Mordérmi, for instance, to make those words sound less Italian to my internal ear, and less intrusive.
But even this way, it was a surreal experience.
Now what I’d really like to know is from what opera – if it really was an opera – Wagner got his names.
There’s also a character called Sandokazi, in the book3, that sounds a lot like a tweaking of Sandokan, the pirate hero created by Italian writer Emilio Salgari.
On the other hand, read with the right intonation, it also sounds like a very rude, and somewhat creative, expression of disbelief or preoccupation in Italian.
And no, it’s not the sort of expression you find in operas.
And no again, I’m not going to translate it.