main index




Topical Tropes

Other Categories

TV Tropes Org
Woolseyism: Literature
  • The decision of one translator of Lysistrata to call the organization of Obstructive Bureaucrats the "Committee of Public Safety", historically the name of the French Revolution government better known as "The Terror". As obviously anachronistic as this may be, given that Athens's government was somewhat similar to Robespierre's and that the modern reader would be unlikely to know much about the real organization, the translated name seems appropriate.
    • There were two main committees at the time of the Terror, the Committee of Public Safety actually being less important than the one headed by Robespierre, the Committee of Public Welfare.
  • Honor Harrington: David Weber's series's Polish translation, where the translator "localized" the State Sec by naming it after the Communist secret police. State Sec gets scary only when you abbreviate it and then make a connection to Those Wacky Nazis, but this way the reader knows from the very beginning they're up to no good (and referring to people "citizen" is not as scary as "comrade"). Unless you're Russian, in which case grazdanin ("citizen") is scarier: it's how the cops (militsiya) address a suspected criminal. Of course, the Poles aren't Russians , which is why the change of terminology was appropriate for the Polish translation and not the Russian one.
  • The Portuguese translation/reworking of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, made by 19th-century writer Eça de Queirós (nowadays recognized as one of the best Portuguese writers of all time) is considered by many as a better book than the original. There are even translations to English, French and Italian of Eça de Queirós's translation.
  • A very famous John Keats poem, On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, is about how the author had read the sober academic editions of ancient works, but was never truly enthralled by Homer until he read George Chapman's more liberal translation. As a side note, the literati of the time ignored or dismissed the point entirely — one even going so far as to propose that, since Keats was relying on translations instead of reading the original Ancient Greek, he was obviously not qualified to be an authority on the subject. This may mean that Fan Dumb is Older Than Radio.
  • Translations of Harry Potter have a different silly acronym for Hermione's house-elf-helping organization, and a different Significant Anagram for Voldemort's true name in each language.
    • The "can I have a look at Uranus too, Lavender?" joke from Goblet of Fire was changed in many translations since a lot of languages lack the pun from Uranus's name. The French translation changes it to the moon - in French it has the same connotations as "mooning" in English. The Danish translation changes it to Lavender talking about her ending got an unknown aspect, to which Ron replies "can I see an aspect of your end too?" - meaning Lavender's ass of course. The Polish translation was even better where Professor Trelawney describes Uranus as "an important celestial body". Ron asks if he can have a look at Lavender's body too.
    • George's ear joke from The Deathly Hallows is arguably funnier in the Swedish translation than in the original text. In the English version, George claims that he feels "holy" after he loses his ear in battle. He then clarifies that he means "holey" (, since he now has a hole in his head.) In the Swedish version, he claims that he "feels like an old coin," which sounds even more nonsensical (and more deserving of the Flat "What." reaction). He then explains that the coin in question is the "ettöring" (a discontinued Swedish coin that isn't used anymore) which has a name that could be interperated as "uniear" or "one-eared" (, though technically, the gramatically correct version would actually be "enöring), resulting in a pretty clever pun. Though this also as the effect of making Fred's Lame Pun Reaction feel less justified.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien planned that his works are translated in this manner. There is even a list of the linguistic roots of names to help with translation. The Finnish translation provides a perfect example of a well done adaptation (complete with an appendix describing the decisions that the translator made). The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are themselves supposed to be adapted from the common language of Middle Earth (see discussion under Literary Agent Hypothesis and Translation Convention)
    • Done by Tolkien himself in the appendix to The Lord of the Rings, where he explains that English puns such as the Bar-Anduin river being nicknamed the Brandywine are based on similar meaning puns in the original languages.
    • It's not clear if Tolkien did this as a pun, or as a subtle way of suggesting "so THAT'S where that story came from"... but one of the sections of The Silmarillion is entitled Akallabêth which is Adûnaic (the language of ancient men) for "The Downfallen". It describes the corruption, and eventual destruction by sinking into the sea, of the nation of Númenor (situated on a large island/small continent west of Middle-Earth and just east of Valinor, the land of the gods). The pun comes when you translate the title into Quenya ("High" Elvish), in which it becomes Atalantë. (He remarked that it was, in fact, an amusing coincidence.)
    • Tolkien, of course, was rather a master philologist who pretty much created The Lord of the Rings to give his made-up languages appropriate backstory.
    • The Japanese edition of The Lord of the Rings (Yubiwa Monogatari) is notable.
    • The first Polish translation of The Lord of the Rings was fairly simplistic and a lot of names were left in from the original. A second translation was made which attempted to reproduce the effect of the English names in Polish ("Bilbo Baggins from Bag End" became "Bilbo Bagosz z Bagoszna"). Unfortunately by this point the Anglicized names were so prevalent in Fanon and tie-in materials that Fan Dumb won the day, and all modern editions of the books use the first version.
    • Suffice to say some of explanations provided by the translator of the second version (philosopher Jerzy Łoziński) sounded like third-rate Ass Pulls, like translating "dwarves" as "krzatowie" (which can be re-translated to English as "ixies", "warfs" or "nomes") just to avoid the "krasno-" ("red-") part of "krasnoludek" (dwarf, as in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") or "Strider" as "Łazik" (a word often used in Polish to refer to Jeeps and similar vehicles), whereas the first translation by Maria Skibniewska had it translated as "Obieżyświat" (someone who traveled all over the world). Some of the Dune books, also translated by Łoziński, are similarly Macekred.
    • The Dutch translation is quite close to the original version, with some name-changes being very close since Dutch and English (especially Tolkien'snote ) are quite similar. The original Dutch translation went a bit further (such as changing 'hobbit' into 'hobbel', meaning 'bump'), but Tolkien, who spoke Dutch, thankfully reverted that.
    • Say what you will about Åke Ohlmarks's Swedish translation (and there is much to be said: see that page), "Vidstige" is an inspired choice for "Strider".
    • The "New Norwegian"/"nynorsk" version of the book consciously made a play of known Norwegian language and folklore tropes, as well as "broadening" of the hobbit dialect into known rural varieties. A nod to the Norwegian language development was also done on behalf of the elder races and the "high linguistic style", being in more ancient grammar.
    • While on the subject of Tolkien, his own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is masterful. Granted he was "only" translating from (Old) English to (Modern) English, but he did it while also changing from the old convention of 'rhyme' (the beginnings of words should sound the same) to the new convention (the ends of words should sound the same). And he usually managed to keep the alliteration too, meaning his version rhymes by both the original author's standards and our modern day ones.
  • A similar effort to that of Tolkien was that used by Richard Adams in Watership Down which presented the names of characters and other vocabulary as Woolseyism translations of the "Lapine" language.
  • The German version of Dune changed Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM) into Merkantile Allianz für Fortschritt und Entwicklung im All (MAFEA)note . Keep in mind that the organisation in question is basically a intergalactic space monopoly.
  • His Dark Materials:
    • When the Spanish publisher Ediciones B got to translate the trilogy, they soon had to figure out a way to translate the word "dæmon": they couldn't use "demonio", Spanish for "demon", because dæmons are more like Spirit Advisors rather than Always Chaotic Evil beings. The answer? The translators took a look at Greek mythology, found out that a daimon is a supernatural being between mortals and gods which can be good as well as evil, saw that this word was the closest thing to Pullman's term, and thus, they translated "dæmon" as "daimonion", which is essentially the same word but more transparent to Hispanic eyes.note 
    • Similarly, the Scandinavian translations couldn't use the word 'dæmon', because that LITERALLY means 'demon' in Danish (in the Norwegian and Swedish, the spelling is "demon"), so, like in Spain, the translator changed it to 'daimon'.
    • The Portuguese books translated the word as "génio", which obviously means "genie". It may sound very stupid, but it is arguably a case of Fridge Brilliance, as in Arabic lore genies/jinns are occasionally analogous to daimons. Furthermore, in Latin "genius" could referred to something similar to the dæmons in the books. The Golden Compass's subtitled translation, however, decided to settle for the Portuguese word for "demon", either for laziness or to make the already controversial movie more provocative.
  • Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot is practically a tome about Woolseyism— it's all about the stylistic choices involved in translation, centering around how to best translate a poem by French poet Clément Marot but with digressions on all manner of other works.
    • Mr. Tortoise from his Gödel, Escher, Bach becomes female when translated into languages having grammatical genders, as described in the introduction to the 20th anniversery edition. He becomes Madame Tortue, for example, in French. Hofstadter, dismayed at the realization of having failed to include any significant female characters in his dialogues, but unwilling to change the original English version, considers this an improvement.
      • Averted in German: "Schildkröte" is feminine, but the tortoise still is male.
    • Another Hofstadter example: when GEB was translated into Chinese, the name in Chinese roughly translates back to "Collection of Exquisite Jade"... in Chinese, that's "Ji Yi Bi". (Say it out loud.) Other translations are similarly intricate.
  • Another famous example would be the translation of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front from German to English. The 1930 English translation by Arthur Wesley Wheen gives the title as "All Quiet on the Western Front". The literal translation is "Nothing New in the West" (Im Westen nichts Neues), with "West" being the war front; this was a routine dispatch used by the German Army.
  • A Clockwork Orange:
    • Occurred with some words in the Spanish translation, "La naranja mecanica". In the original, most of the nadsat language is taken from Russian with little or no change. Some terms, however, were morphed into similarly sounding English words. Take for example gulliver for "head". As the Spanish word for it (cabeza) sounds nothing like it, the translated nadsat (via Word of God) became golovo, a direct transliteration from the Russian original word. Same happened with horrorshow (which turned into joroscho). Some others changed in less correct ways ("the old in-out" became "el viejo unodos", lit. "the old onetwo", when it could have been "el viejo metesaca"). Several untranslatable terms of jargon were silently converted to their "normal" counterparts, and most of the rest were adapted to comply with the ending and concordance rules of Spanish, but still sounding a lot more like their Russian counterparts than the English portmanteaus (portmanteaux?).
    • The Polish translator of the book, Robert Stiller, made two versions: the older one keeps the slang Russian and corrects it like the Spanish translation above (although changing the awkward "nadsat", meaning "'teen", into "nastoyaschi", meaning "current", and some words that are similar in Polish and Russian got simply converted into Polish), and the later one, retitled "Nakręcana Pomarańcza" ("A Wind-Up Orange"), replaces Russian words in the slang with English ones.
    • One Russian translation does an inversion - the slang consists of English words. A different one keeps all pseudo-Russian slang, but keeps its spelling with Latin characters - so that they are clearly identified as lingo and not "normal" usage of the word.
  • A Norwegian translation of The Brothers Karamazov substituted German for Polish in scenes where Polish characters use a few words from their native language.
  • Discworld:
    • The Swedish translations are regularly very good, replacing English language-specific puns with equivalent ones and changing references to Anglo-Saxon culture, etc. to Swedish ones. One highlight: the movie business troll in Moving Pictures is named Rock, a reference to Rock Hudson. The Swedish translation changed his name to Bergman. (Berg being Swedish for "mountain", and all Discworld trolls having rock-related names.)
    • Another example: Ankh-Morpork has an "Elm Street", and since it is where undead and similar people live, it is obviously a horror movie pun, and a perfectly normal name for a street. In Swedish it became "Kreugers gränd" - which sounds like a perfectly normal Swedish street name, but obviously references the same movie.
    • Most Polish translations of the Discworld books are equally good. For example, in Soul Music, "Music With Rocks In" is translated as "Muzyka Wykrokowa" (not only the phrase sounds like "muzyka rockowa" - "rock music", but also brings to mind an energetic dance step forward - "wykrok"). There are some problems with the names of the bands, though.
    • The French translations are also very good, to the point that the translator received an award for his work. Just to name one example, Mr Teatime in Hogfather, whose name has been translated as Lheurduthé (litterally "hour of tea", and the actual translation of "tea time" in French), insists that his name be pronounced as "Le-re-dou-té", which sounds like "the feared one" (le redouté) in French.
      • Another gem is the translation of The Death of Rats as "La Mort Aux Rats", litterally meaning the "The Death of them rats", but also the name for rat poison in French.
  • Georges Perec's La Disparition is a lipogrammatic french novel without the letter 'e'. The various translators of the book have mirrored Perec's choice by excluding the most common letter in their language, so while the English version (A Void) also contains no E's, the Spanish edition (El secuestro) has no A's.
  • The Cyberiad's translation by Michael Kandel is well-known, and praised in Le Ton beau de Marot above. It includes, among other things, a poem written almost entirely in complex mathematical jargon. And it rhymes.
  • Beowulf:
    • Seamus Heaney's translation is widely regarded as far better and more accessible than the attempts made before it. The introduction gives a great account of how much work it was by going into excruciating detail on Heaney's thought process on translating just the first word (he eventually decided on "so"). Anglo-Saxonists tend to deride this translation because of its Woolseyist tendencies, referring disparagingly to it as "Heaneywulf."
  • Frank L Warrin's French translation of Jabberwocky exchanges Lewis Carroll's nonsense words for French nonsense of similar derivation. For example, slithy (reminiscent of slimy, slither, slippery, lithe and sly) became lubricilleux, reminiscent of the French word for to lubricate.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A mild case. Veruca Salt's surname was changed to Paprika in the Hebrew translation because "Salt" dosen't have a meaning in Hebrew. If it would have stayed like that the young readers wouldn't understand there's a connection between the name and the dad's business.
  • The Norwegian translation of the Jennings books and audio dramas are so full of changes that they are almost adaptations rather than straight-up translations; the stories and the characters are mostly the same, but the translator, Nils-Reinhart Christensen, decided to change the location; instead of taking place in an English boarding school, the Norwegian books take place in a Norwegian boarding school, with the students now coming from various places in Norway and speaking the characteristic dialects of their hometowns. Names are different; Jennings himself is nicknamed "Stompa" (for his initials; his full name is "Stein Oskar Magell Paus-Andersen"), and many purely-English terms and traditions are either swapped for Norwegian ones or dropped altogether. But with the changes — and the brilliant acting of Gisle Straume as "Lektor Tørrdal" (the Norwegian Mr. Wilkins) in the audio dramas — the Norwegian "Stompa" became hugely popular, and even spawning four theatrical movies which are still regarded as classics today.
  • Winnie the Pooh:
    • Zakhoder did this to the Russian translation, to such a point that he basically rewrote the book. It worked. The popularity of his re-imagined characters in the USSR and Russia rivaled or surpassed that of the Disney animated version in the English-speaking world, and continues to do so today.
    • Boris Zakhoder did the same with Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins. And he succeeded there, too. By his own admission he never thought of his translations as a proper ones, though. He always called them "re-tellings".
    • There is a Russian joke which says "I imagined Tolkien in Zakhoder's translation. Cried a lot".
    • Frigyes Karinthy's Cult Classic Hungarian translation of Winnie the Pooh is also highly favored over the original for its extensive use of more "colorful" expressions (no, not swearing, but things like using "barked Pooh triumphantly" in place of "said Pooh"). Fans of the translated version tend to see the original as uninspired and dry, some even calling it downright annoying.
  • The Spanish translation of A Series of Unfortunate Events changed renamed Esmé Squalor to Esmé Miseria.
  • Older Than Steam: The King James Bible:
    • It's full of more-or-less Woolseyisms. More modern Bible translations such as the New International Version have preserved the most famous ones in only slightly modernized form. The KJV Twenty-Third Psalm, for example, begins "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." In the NIV, this has been translated to "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want," which is both more awkward-sounding and almost as anachronistic, even if it is a somewhat better literal translation.
    • That is also a case of an ever changing language. There are more technically accurate translations of The Bible, but what has made the King James Version so popular is the poetic 16th Century prose they used. Putting it in modern language may make it slightly easier to understand, but it loses a lot of its charm.
    • A localized translation of the ten commandments would read something like "No murder. No coveting." etc.
    • Ironically, plenty of subtle meaning is actually lost in translating The Bible 's ancient languages according to overall meaning instead of word-for-word. A well-known example is Jesus's face-off with the Pharisees in John 8, where they ask Jesus how He could possibly think He is older than Moses. The Worldwide English (New Testament) translation of the response goes: Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth. I already was before Abraham was born.", which while accurate in conveying the blunt meaning, misses out on the (intentional) back-reference of other translations. For example, the New International Version translation: "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am." This is a reference to the name of God (God said to Moses, "I am who am." - Exodus 3:14), and thus signified that Jesus considered Himself God... Which explains why the Pharisees immediately flew into a rage and tried to stone Jesus (for blasphemy) when they had earlier just put up with being called the children of the devil with far less outrage.
    • Incidentally, the idea of "dynamic equivalence" in relation to The Bible tends to draw a lot of, well, heated reactions; most of the problem stemming from the fact that many people are unaware of the "Woolseyisms" of editions like the KJV detailed above, and thus assume that the version they are familiar with, often the KJV or Vulgate Latin, is the true, unblemished version straight from the mouth of God. Needless to say, this can make discussion of proper meaning in The Bible very, very difficult.
    • And going further into Woolseyism, there are Bible paraphrases out there, the best-known of which is Eugene Peterson's The Message. Your mileage may vary.
    • Similar with Martin Luther's German translation, which BTW helped to create the German standard language of today.
    • The Parable of the Talents acquires a highly appropriate pun in English, as the story of three servants who must use the talents (unit of currency) their master gave them wisely instead of letting them go to waste illustrates how people are supposed to use the talents (skills and abilities) God has given them wisely instead of letting them go to waste.
      • It's the other way round. It was that parable in the KJV which codified the "skill" meaning of "talent".
    • A rather controversial one is the transformation of Malakoi (soft) to effeminate (KJV) to homosexual offenders (Living Bible). Whether this counts as Woolseyism or "Blind Idiot" Translation—or worse, Translation with an Agenda—is a matter best not discussed here.
    • In the Jewish oral tradition, it is brought down that King Ptolemy ordered 70 elders to translate the Torah into Greek. They made changes to the text in order to adapt it to the Greek (in one example, they changed an animal referred to as impure because the original animal's name in Greek sounded like the name of Ptolemy's wife), and miraculously, though all 70 scholars were translated independently and in separate rooms, they each made the exact same changes.
  • Similar to the biblical examples above, most Muslim scholars will say that this is the only way that the Qur'an can be translated, as there is too much meaning riding on the phrasing of the original Arabic as to render the text "untranslatable" in the traditional sense. The most popular English translation, Abdullah Yusuf Ali's, takes this approach.
  • Lin Shu, who translated many European novels—La Dame Aux Camelias, David Copperfield, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joan Haste and Robinson Crusoe, to name a few—without knowing any European language. The way he succeeded in translated these novels (by Word of God) practically enforced this trope:
    I know no foreign languages. I cannot pass for a translator without the aid of several gentlemen, who interpret the texts for me. They interpret, and I write down what they interpret. They stop, and I put down my pen. 6,000 words can be produced after a mere four hours' labour.
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World uses two Japanese Pronouns to give a different narrative, given the rather unique events of the book. However, Japanese Pronouns don't translate over to english, and the translator took a different option that gets the point across, and gives a subtle Foreshadowing. The narrator makes the "End of the world" translations occur in the present-tense, as opposed to the past-tense narrative of the "Hard-Boiled wonderland" sections.
  • Moss Roberts' translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms manages to translated the Chinese poetry into English in a way that has poetic meter and even rhymes.
  • The Norwegian translation of The Saga of Darren Shan is kinda like an adaption rather than a translation, and the translator seem to have relied on TriTrans a little too much. Vampaneze is changed into vampan. Mr. Tall is changed to Herr Høynote  Mr. Desmond Tiny is changed into Matt Order which sounds more like a masochistic judge than a creep, and when abbreviated (M. Order) it can be read as morder (murderer), but that does not fit the last book's title. R.V. claims he's a rightful vampaneze, being it just as much as the other vampaneze. In Norwegian he calls himself "rettferdig vampan"; while rettferdig can mean "rightful", it mainly means "fair", which doesn't exactly fit as he felt that the world had been unfair to him. The translator would better have used "rettmessig", which actually means only rightful.
  • Played with in the Khaavren novels of Dragaera, when the author makes up an equivalent Woolseyism in Dragaeran for a common English saying. Specifically, the local saying that "when you make assumptions, you are thinking like a fish" is allegedly derived from how the native language's words for "fish" and "think", when combined, sound much like their word for "assumption". The Real Life English equivalent is "when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me".
  • In the original version of Life, the Universe and Everything, there's an award for Most Gratuitous Use of the Word "Fuck" in a Serious Screenplay; the American version replaces "fuck" with "Belgium" (which the radio series established as the dirtiest word in the universe). This leads to an amusing bit where Arthur Dent tries to wrap his head around the concept and accidentally ends up offending the young alien woman with whom he's conversing.
  • The J. T. Bealby translation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" repeatedly calls the creepy door-to-door salesman Coppola a "hawker" of oculars and glasses (which he refers to as "eyes"). This resounds beautifully with the gruesome tale of Nathanael's old nurse, who described the Sandman as a bird-like creature who hunts for eyes—a hawk is a bird of prey, and "to hawk" also means "to hunt in the style of a hawk". But it is entirely a clever translation; in the original, Coppola is just a "Wetterglashändler", which does not strike any such associations.

FilmWoolseyismLive-Action TV

TV Tropes by TV Tropes Foundation, LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available from
Privacy Policy