11 August 2010

His ineffable effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.*

Over at Eglantine's Cake, Penni Russon and her readers have been talking about names. Do you define a name, or does a name define you?

It seems there's definitely more to names than meets the eye. But perhaps there's also more to names than meets the ear.

The Good Master by Kate Seredy is one of my favourite books. My mother first read it to me when I was eight. Then, when we were going to be apart for several months a few years later, she recorded herself reading our favourite chapters and sent me off, armed with the cassette tape and a Walkman.** I also read it for myself many times while I was growing up.***

The Good Master
is set on a Hungarian farm before the First World War, and the main character is an 11-year-old boy named Jansci Nagy.

Only it's not.
Not how I thought anyway.

When my mother read the Good Master to me she knew nothing of Hungarian pronunciation and so said the names as they came naturally to an English speaker. We read about Jansee Nahghee. Jansee - a brisk, bright name; the ringing of sleighbells across the vast Hungarian plain; the tinkle of water in the brook that cut through the Nagy's farm; Jansee; Jansee.

But when I went to university and did a bit of Hungarian history, I discovered that the main character in The Good Master is actually a boy called Yonshee Nodge. Yonshee - an altogether different name. An altogether different boy?

I was bereft. I felt as if Jansee, the boy I had known for so many years, had been spirited away and replaced with a strange substitute - rather like the ice-baby that the goblins leave behind in place of Ida's baby brother in Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. Or worse, it was as if he had never existed at all.

Yonshee felt to me so profoundly different a name that it would be as if you read Anne of Green Gables but every time you saw the word Anne you had to remember to say Bruce, and expect her to be the same girl.**** Could I love Yonshee as much as I loved Jansee? Did I even know Yonshee?

I had other incidents with the names of characters over the years. I thought Laura from the Little House books was called Lara (like the town outside Geelong), because of my dad's American accent. I thought Arietty from the Borrowers was Ariety, to rhyme with variety. Discovering I was wrong caused me a little consternation for a time - but I got over it.

I don't think I've ever got over Jancsi Nagy.

Whenever I read the Good Master now, I cheat. I abandon Yonshee and steal back Jansee. (Or I try to because there's forever a faint whisper of Yonshee.)

But what if I am ever in the position of reading The Good Master to my own children, or someone elses? Will I read about Jansee or Yonshee? Do I have a moral obligation to pronounce the name as it ought to be pronounced? Am I obliged to put aside my preference to save the poor child from any future Jansee/Yonshee discombobulation of their own? Or am I allowed to give them Jansee, as he was given to me?

What would happen to my Jansee if I let Yonshee in? And what would happen to Yonshee if I gave him room to breathe?

I am very curious to know if anyone else has had a similar experience with mispronounced, misheard, misremembered or misunderstood names in books? If so - do you stick to the old familiar name? Or do you valiantly embrace the new? And in so doing, do you discover a new character, or does the old character change the name?

* Have you seen Faber's gorgeous illustrated edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. So much wanting!
** Yes, a cassette tape and a Walkman - remember those?
*** Given that I am still growing up, I am still reading them.
**** Anne-with-an-e herself knew about the power of names, the shape of them and the weight of them.


Anonymous said...

This isn't quite on topic, but I discovered the English pronunciation of 'Ralph' in my 40s, towards the end of Diana Wynne Jones's The Lives of Christopher Chant. A pun that's central to the plot just didn't work if the bearded man was called Ralph. His name had to be Rafe. So for me, the character disconcertingly changed his name in mid narrative.

Penni Russon said...

I had the most vivid dream in which our baby (a round toddler boy) told me his name, a name I have never heard or considered, but Martin looked it up and it IS a real name. Also off topic.

I listened to Rachel Cusk's the Bradshaw Variations and the narrator kept switching between pronouncing Claudia as Clawed-ee-a and Cloud-ee-a - it was most disconcerting.

The Alien Onions said...

Penni - OH EM GEE! Did you like the name? Are you going to call him by it?


Jonathan Walker said...

It took me about six years to write my first book, which is about the Venetian spy Gerolamo Vano. For at least the first two, I mispronounced his name every time I said it (so I was told discreetly by an Italian friend after one seminar paper).

I feel better about this knowing that seventeenth-century documents don't have standardised spellings for names: one spy in my book is referred to as Francesco, Franceco, Franseco and Francheco (all by the same author, and in the same document!) Plus in Venice, people often have an Italian, a Venetian and a Latin version of their name: e.g. Giovanni, Zuanne, Johannes.

So is it Gerolamo Vano, or Hieronimo Vanni? Both, depending on the context. Very confusing, but somehow appropriate for slippery spies.

The Alien Onions said...

Jonathan W - oh good story. I do like a spy with a slippery name. But that must have been quite disconcerting when you were trying to get a grip on him to write about him. I also like the idea of having different selves in different languages. Not a completely different identity, just a Venetian version.

Jonathan S - Half-way through! That would be highly dicombobulating. And you can't get away with going back to the old pronunciation in your head if key plot points are involved.


Penni Russon said...

I do quite like it. I am rolling it around in my head. In my dream we had given him another (unknown) name, but this was the name he called himself by. Even if I didn't use it I would always wonder if it was his True Name.

Celine said...

I've only recently been having very similar naming revelations myself! The audio book publishers and I decided to ask my Estonian translator how she would pronounce the Norse names in The Crowded Shadows. It was quite a shock to find out that Sólmundr and Hallvor are not (as I had thought ) saul-mundur and Haal-vore but Suul-mundr and Hal-vuur. I still can't quite get my head around it. I don't know why, but I find it especially disconcerting that Sól should now be Suul.

miss elise said...

Celine! Existential crisis! x

Celine said...

Elise - can only be solved by chocolate (and also by sticking my fingers in my ears and singing lalalalalaaaaa)

Jellyfish said...

I had problems with Babar. I still do! When my parents read it to me, they pronounced his name "Bar-bar" (as in black sheep, have you any wool) and the monkey Zephyr as "Zeh-FEER" (rhymes with appear). When I was a teenage babysitter, I was often corrected by extremely irate children for my mispronunciation - apparently it's "Babbar" and the monkey is "Zeffer" (rhymes with heifer - like the actual word, I guess).

But I've also heard other people pronounce it as Bab-BAR (rhymes with guitar). I guess cos it's a French book that was made into an American tv series there are a few versions flying around.

I've never really been able to adjust, they will always be Bar-bar and Zeh-FEER to me.

Similar to your Lara/Laura conundrum, I was always very fond of the kindly male performer Barb on Sesame Street and was about 16 when my mum finally crumbled and informed me I was saying it wrong. His name was just Bob. WHAT?!

So I sympathise your plight. Obviously Jansee Nahghee cannot, and will never be, Yonshee Nodge (silly Hungarians!).

Leonie said...

I have never been able to read Jane Eyre the same way since discovering that 'St John' is actually pronounced 'Sinjen'. Why,for heaven's sake? This just seems completely illogical and pointless to me and I can't help resenting Charlotte Bronte for it -thus, she is no longer my favourite Bronte sister. Long live Anne, I say (in a non-literal sense at least...)
Love your blog generally!