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Lord Voldemort

With the arrival of the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the name Lord Voldemort is well established as a super-villain in children's literature. But this arch-villain and ultimate antagonist in the Harry Potter series, the evil wizard who started life as Tom Marvolo Riddle has a very normal name for a fantasy nemesis.

Consider Darth Vader, a name George Lucas has said was his attempt to fuse “death water” and “dark father” into one foreboding combination. Vader is routinely referred to as Lord Vader even in the first Star Wars film (i.e.: episode four, released in 1977), and is only later revealed to be a Sith Lord, and only much, much later do we even find out what the Sith are about (starting with The Phantom Menace). The word Sith sounds similar to sin or shit, both unpleasant concepts. And obviously, Darth sounds quite similar to dark, death, and Lucas knew this.

Rowling, whether consciously or not, also chose wisely. Voldemort includes the quite common mort, which is closely associated with death, as in words like mortuary or mortician. Tolkien, a master linguist himself, named his land of evil Mordor, taking advantage of the same association in Latinate and Germanic languages. Volde is easily seen or heard as close to “full of”, leading to a name that means something like “full of death”, which would certainly be an apt description of He Who Shall Not Be Named, but always is anyway.

Note by the reader "Aea" (Thanks):I would have thought that it is obvious to any person who knows a modicum of french that it means flight(Vol) of(De) Death(Mort) not "full of death" also it is know that J.K. Rowling spent a year in France for her studies. So I hope you understand my explination and that you will correct it.

The name remains unchanged in the translations of the Harry Potter into other languages. But the ingenious origins of the name, revealed late in the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, had to be altered to preserve the wordplay Rowling created.

Recall that Tom Marvolo Riddle can be transposed to create "I am Lord Voldemort", which Tom himself does for Harry by using his wand to write his name in fire in the air, and then move the letters around so Harry can watch the formation of his nemesis's name.

So to reserve this transposition, the translators of the Harry Potter novels had to alter Riddle's name, as seen below.

French Tom Elvis Jedusor Je suis Voldemort
German Tom Vorlost Riddle Ist Lord Voldemort
Spanish Tom Sorvolo Ryddle Soy Lord Voldemort
Japanese トムリドル (pronounced "tomu ridoru") The word play simply cannot be reproduced in Japanese
Chinese 汤姆马佛鲁瑞斗 我是佛地魔王

Translators do their best within the limits of their language pair. The French version uses a different name because when the first Harry Potter book came out, there was no central control over the proper names and terms in Rowling's work, and so the French translators followed a well-established tradition for that language of re-creating the feel of the name rather than simply transliterating or transposing from the source. Jedusor sounds like a playful if mysterious last name in French, and so captures the concept of "Riddle" nicely. As the books because internationally famous, central control over names and terms was exerted, so this variation is only seen in French.

There is an additional level of wordplay in the French. Because "sort" is used to mean spell, along with the more standard word sortilège, the name Jedusor can be seen as an abbreviation for "jet du sort" meaning a blow with a spell, or "jeu du sort" meaning a game with spells. The French translator deserves particular credit for this level of ingenuity.

Chinese and Japanese, not being written with alphabets, pose separate issues. Both use the standard form for the name Tom, and the rest is simply fudged as best as possible, but something is lost in the translation. The Chinese translation of the book does include the English version as well, for interested readers.

Even the name Voldemort itself doesn't carry in Japanese, or Chinese, Korean, and many other languages the same associations it conjures up for French, Spanish, or German readers. This is why translation is often referred to as the other side of the tapestry.

But the associations do work brilliantly in English. Lord Voldemort sounds evil, menacing, malicious, and lives up (or down as it were) to his name as the story progresses.

None of this happens consciously as we read or hear names. But it’s revealing to tease out the associations and find what’s lurking beneath. We do judge a book by its cover, a character by his or her name. Authors know this and use it to work their magic on us the readers.

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