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Question...? Ancient names in modern fiction

Rich.

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Aha! the new question threads, just what I need...

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So, you're writing a commercial historical novel, an action-adventure story set during the Roman invasion of Britain, and you're faced with all these unpronounceable Celtic names – CYNWRIG, GWRTHEYRN, IUDICAEL, SEISYLL.

What do you do? – render them phonetically into modern English, make up names that sound convincing but read more smoothly, stick with the unpronounceable originals (this option frightens me, hence this thread), something else?

All help will be much appreciated. :)

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[Don't forget to upvote the answers you like!]
 
Solution
I'd say, feel free to use a commonly accepted modern version that is easier for the reader. Often that will mean the name was Latinised at some point.

We know Merlin as, well, Merlin, thanks to the Latinisation, Merlinus, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, or else we'd know him as Myrddin Wyllt, and wonder how to pronounce it. I would, anyway,

There's often a bit of scope, eg; Caractacus was the Latin variant of Cymbeline, Cunobelinus,Middle Welsh Caratawc; Welsh Caradog; Breton Karadeg; Greek Καράτακος; (Karatakos)

Shakespeare settled on Cymbeline.

He was king of the Catuvellauni tribe, but in the novel 'Red Shift', the author Alan Garner has his Roman soldiers just call them Cats.

But we say William the Conqueror or Duke William, we...

CageSage

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I'd use the ones that a reader is most likely to be able to pronounce, and 'adapt' the ones that aren't. In agreement with @Barbara for those two, and
GWRTHEYRN, IUDICAEL,
adapt to be more phonetic sounds. eg. Grethern or Gwetheyrn, and Udical or Idicael.

Make it easy on the reader, because if they can't say the name in their head, they won't connect to the character (which may be fine for minor characters, but not the major players).

As in a stage play, don't let the audience miss a thing, don't make it hard on them, don't let them fiddle in the seats
 
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georginaK

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As I reader, I struggle with that when reading translations sometimes. If I can’t pronounce the name in my head, I have trouble remembering who’s who—especially when there are a lot of characters and generations through the story. I agree that it can make it challenging to connect with the characters.
 
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RK Capps

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That's a hard one. To keep them the same could lend authenticity, but to alter them could make the reading experience easier. I'd be inclined to read other books in that genre and gauge in historical fiction readers (of Roman history) prefer authenticity or an easier reading experience. What are your comp titles? See what they do...
 
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Rich.

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Thanks for your replies, everyone. :)

My original thought was to make it easy, as you've all pointed out. It's encouraging that we all agree on this!

This is a brilliant suggestion...
Most everyone has a nickname or is referred to by the diminutive of their name. Use that familiar name after introducing them by their proper name.
...thanks, Paul.

As is this, thanks to Kate...
How about finding modern versions of those names, or picking up on Cetic origin names that are still in use today?

You could add an author's note in the back discussing the names: it would be an added point of interest to a reader, I suspect.

Those two really set off lightbulbs in my head.

Anyone else have an opinion?
 
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Katie-Ellen

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I'd say, feel free to use a commonly accepted modern version that is easier for the reader. Often that will mean the name was Latinised at some point.

We know Merlin as, well, Merlin, thanks to the Latinisation, Merlinus, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, or else we'd know him as Myrddin Wyllt, and wonder how to pronounce it. I would, anyway,

There's often a bit of scope, eg; Caractacus was the Latin variant of Cymbeline, Cunobelinus,Middle Welsh Caratawc; Welsh Caradog; Breton Karadeg; Greek Καράτακος; (Karatakos)

Shakespeare settled on Cymbeline.

He was king of the Catuvellauni tribe, but in the novel 'Red Shift', the author Alan Garner has his Roman soldiers just call them Cats.

But we say William the Conqueror or Duke William, we don't know him by his names in his own land, Le Duc Guillaume, Guillaume Le Conquerant or Guillaume le Bâtard

There are other figures in history, non-mythical, the reader would just have to suck it up, short of a glossary.
 
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Solution

Jonny

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I don't have much to add except to say I'd go down the phonetic route too. If the originals are pronounceable then all to the good and those that aren't then try to soften them on the ear.

Is the genre factual or "altered" historical fiction? I'm assuming factual (yes, I'm a history dunce), but if these character names have not been altered already in common usage, into a more user-friendly version, then perhaps their natural obscurity / anonymity to a wider readership might allow you to take a few liberties.

Did a bit of snooping around on t'Internet and found, for example, Cynwrig has evolved (sort of in some cases) into the modern more ear-friendly Kendrick.

 
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Hannah F

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I agree with simplifying the names but keeping an 'air' of authenticity. If the reader can "say" it correctly, they will identify with it.

I also think @KateESal's suggestion about putting a name glossary of origin in the author's note is a brilliant suggestion.
I read historical fiction, mainly from Georgian back to King Arthur, and I would find that glossary incredibly interesting.
The history of the battle against the Welsh and Edward Longshanks (English king) is one where I can only remember the Welsh Kings by the phonetic versions of their names: Gruffid and David.
 
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Rich.

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I'd say, feel free to use a commonly accepted modern version that is easier for the reader. Often that will mean the name was Latinised at some point.
Yep, I see a consensus emerging. Great observations, KT.

Is the genre factual or "altered" historical fiction? I'm assuming factual...
You're assuming right, at least as far as one can be factual about a period so far in the past. It's certainly a novel for the historical shelves though, not the fantasy section. And thanks for the link, Jonny, and more to the point for the time you spent in finding it.

I read historical fiction, mainly from Georgian back to King Arthur, and I would find that glossary incredibly interesting.
It's good to know that, Hannah. Kate's suggestion was certainly a good one – historical notes are definitely a thing in this genre.

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My protagonist is a Romanized British Celt. His name is currently in flux, but it may be Cai, a name that appears in Welsh mythology and is possibly a variant of the Roman Gaius, which – again, possibly – is derived from the Latin word gaudere ('to rejoice' or 'to take pleasure in'). All of which feeds nicely into his personal identity issues (somewhat ironically in the case of the name's Latin root).
 
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David Y

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I suppose you don't know yet if you'll land a publishing deal or will self-publish, but my gut feeling is if it's the former the publishers may take the decision from you but if the latter you could get really creative (multiple versions/a cast-list with pronunciation guide/even graphics representing each character) or what's already been suggested.
 
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KateESal

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Cai is good...still in use today in various forms...(we have a Kai at our school...he comes from a Scottish family...)

Glad you like the glossary idea, I love reading those titbits at the end of a historical novel!
 
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Rich.

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I suppose you don't know yet if you'll land a publishing deal...
Not yet, but the dream's alive!

(Also, one of my favourite Christmas hymns is "Gaudete")
Didn't know it. Have just listened to a couple of versions on YouTube (Steeleye Span!). It's proper haunting. I can imagine writing to this...




Glad you like the glossary idea, I love reading those titbits at the end of a historical novel!
Me too. Although as this is my first foray into writing historical fiction, I must admit I'm nervous about pleasing enough of the better informed. Crouching tiger, hidden dragon... (which many years ago a Chinese Tai-chi teacher told me means, more or less, It doesn't matter how good you think you are, there's always someone better.)
 
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Stephanie Petersen

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I am WAY late to this party, but I'm dealing with this very thing in my novel set in medieval Ireland. As suggested above, I have a pronunciation guide at the front because, for example, the difficult name "Aoibhneas" (which is actually an old Celtic word describing a form of bliss) is easily pronounced ("Eveness") once somebody tells you that. This way, I hope I'm allowing or maybe encouraging my readers to invest and immerse themselves in a world that isn't simply set up for them in the most convenient of terms. Another character, Beochaoineadh ("Bay-oh-keen-yu") is, however, occasionally referred to as Beo. This may or may not be because it's easier for me to type. :)
 
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Rich.

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I'm dealing with this very thing ... I have a pronunciation guide ... I hope I'm allowing or maybe encouraging my readers to invest and immerse themselves in a world that isn't simply set up for them in the most convenient of terms.
Yep, that's the heart of the problem, isn't it? I agree there'll always be readers who will take the time to learn unfamiliar names, who want that level of authenticity from a historical novel (I lean in that direction). But at the same time, most people won't study a pronunciation guide before diving into a novel. It's why I started this thread – chasing an answer to an impossible question!

In the context of non-fiction, particularly pop-science, publishers often suggest that each equation a book contains halves its sales. My fear is that (rigidly) authentic names are the equations of historical novels. I've tagged @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine's post earlier in this thread as being the 'solution' to the opening question, a subjective answer to be sure, but a convincing one.

So, concretely, for the project I'm working on, I'm thinking of making stuff easy in the body of the novel, and then including a 'Note on Names' at the end with authentic spellings, pronunciations and the like (following @KateESal's suggestion, which struck me as an excellent compromise). The note will be there for the interested, as a supplement not a barrier.

That's the idea anyway. I don't yet know if it'll work! :)
 
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Hannah F

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Yep, that's the heart of the problem, isn't it? I agree there'll always be readers who will take the time to learn unfamiliar names, who want that level of authenticity from a historical novel (I lean in that direction). But at the same time, most people won't study a pronunciation guide before diving into a novel. It's why I started this thread – chasing an answer to an impossible question!

In the context of non-fiction, particularly pop-science, publishers often suggest that each equation a book contains halves its sales. My fear is that (rigidly) authentic names are the equations of historical novels. I've tagged @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine's post earlier in this thread as being the 'solution' to the opening question, a subjective answer to be sure, but a convincing one.

So, concretely, for the project I'm working on, I'm thinking of making stuff easy in the body of the novel, and then including a 'Note on Names' at the end with authentic spellings, pronunciations and the like (following @KateESal's suggestion, which struck me as an excellent compromise). The note will be there for the interested, as a supplement not a barrier.

That's the idea anyway. I don't yet know if it'll work! :)
I think this is a great idea.
 
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