Susanne Dunlap

Naming Conventions

In Books I have read, Historical Fiction, Writing Craft on November 8, 2010 at 9:44 am

When I was a child I regularly read comic books. It was something my older brother, and then my younger brothers too when they learned to read, used to do, waiting for the newest Superman or Spiderman comic, then passing it around. I honestly remember little about those comics, and am not much of a fan today. I even find it difficult to read graphic novels; I haven’t quite been able to appreciate the aesthetic, or unpick my expectations from the lines of text I have come to associate with the magic of a book,

In fact, the one thing I remember clearly about comic books was the habit the writers of the Superman comics had of creating names for alien characters that consisted entirely of consonants from the latter end of the alphabet. I used to struggle and puzzle over how to pronounce those names. It’s possible I was trying to read the comics aloud to my younger brothers—I honestly don’t remember. But it bothered me terribly that there was no way to get my teeth around a name like Xptlz.

Just lately, I’ve had a similar experience with two different books I am reading—both of them quite excellent in different ways, both of them historical fiction. One is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The other is Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow. I lay awake last night having just closed the cover on the former of these, which is a fascinating, colorful look at the relationship between Japan and the Dutch East India Company at the turn of the nineteenth century, and found myself obsessing about how to pronounce the many unfamiliar names in the book. And that only brought to mind my other current read, parts of which are set in Wales in the thirteenth century, where places’ and persons’ names include seemingly random extra consonants. I found that rather than pondering the disturbing events and deeply explored characters in both books, I was distracted by the thought of names my mind’s ear wasn’t sure it knew how to pronounce.

That made me think about how I read, and the oft-raised issue of voice in writing. There is no question in my mind that I “hear” a novel. Perhaps that’s why it took me a long time to embrace audio books, which although they didn’t go as far as a movie version of a book, supplied a voice to my ear that wasn’t always the one I might have imagined for myself. In fact, that voice I hear is not something I could conjure up, say, imagining a real person’s way of speaking. It’s something that a good novelist has evoked in such a way that I’m recreating it silently as I read, a ghostly presence alive only to me.

As to why troublesome pronunciation should have any effect on how I “hear” a novel, I can only guess. It may simply be a weird idiosyncracy. I’ve always been a student of languages. I’m pretty fluent in French once I get into practice, can read German and Italian quite well, studied Russian for a while in college, and have a passing acquaintance with Swedish. I’m someone who can pronounce a language often like a native—even if I don’t speak it. I have a keen ear: I was a musician, after all.

So does my mind’s ear torment me by insisting that I pronounce things correctly to myself? Is that why I can spend hours wondering whether Jacob de Zoet is pronounced more or less the way it looks to an English speaker, or Yakobe de Tsoot? In the case of Mitchell’s Dutch names, I have just enough knowledge of German and Swedish to find them especially troubling. The Japanese ones are not so disturbing, since they are essentially phonetic recreations, but I still find myself wondering if Aibagawa is pronounced Long-A-bagawa or Long-I-bagawa.

As to Penman’s Welsh cast of characters…I’m capable of puzzling for hours over whether I should just ignore the extra “w” in Glwadys, or do something funky with my lips to account for it. Having lived in England for ten years, I somehow managed not to have to deal with Welsh names very much. I never traveled to Wales in all that time, although I had a few Welsh friends and colleagues. Their names, as I recall, had generally been anglicized.

Mitchell and Penman could do no other than they have in terms of their characters’ names, many of which are a matter of historical record or at least historically justified. The same went for me; I could do nothing to alter the fact that two of my main characters in my first novel had names so similar that several readers complained at my insensitivity to their potential confusion (I speak of Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon). But it does remind me of how important every detail of a novel can be to a reader, from the choice of how much dialect to indicate with strange spelling and punctuation, to the choice of names for characters.

As I go through my first-pass pages for IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAMP, I find myself splitting myself in two. Part of me is reading very carefully with my eyes, to catch any mistakes the copyeditors missed before the novel goes to the printer and it’s too late. The other part is listening, trying to imagine what another reader will make of it, how she will “hear” Molly’s first-person voice. I have it very clear in my head, from my years of living in England, with friends who stepped straight out of the East End. I agonized over how to represent her voice in print. In the end, I didn’t give Molly’s narration much spelling variety, leaving the initial “h” in place everywhere and keeping verb tenses correct. I saved the dialect for spoken dialogue. Instead, I tried to recreate with word choice and sentence structure the rhythm and quality of a lower-class, Victorian Londoner.

Will my American readers pick up Molly’s origins in her narration? Or will they simply imagine for themselves whatever version of that type of character they’re familiar with? I expect I’ll never know. But if there’s ever an audio book of it, you can bet I’ll insist on doing the casting.

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  1. How fascinating this article was for me, who can also read in a few languages, and often gives characters in my own fiction difficult names. Having a Mediterranean upbringing does strange things to one’s perception of sounds, especially pronunciation. There is a Welshman in my forthcoming book, and two Australians… and a good sprinkling of Italians since it mainly takes place in Venice, where I suppose I thought about the lapping of water against walls rather than how ‘Antonio’ might sound in the mind of non-Italian readers.
    Perhaps I should have given it more thought – I usually do with names. Thinking of comics, I used to spend hours reading girls’ ones such as Bunty and Judy, and June and Schoolfriend, where the story that quickly comes to mind is The Four Marys! Mary Field, Mary Cotter… and cannot remember the other two. I wish someone can for me now, that you have given me this insistence in my mind to link comics to names.

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