Web Search and Translation Software as Character Generation Aids
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue, with the title "Google Names", and the present title as a subtitle. The PDF still reflects that title; however, we have since learned that this was an improper use of a trademark, and have edited the article as posted here to conform to the allowed usage.
You’ve rolled up a character, written a history, filled in most of the character sheet or index card, … and suddenly realize … What’s xir name? And then your brain freezes up. You have no idea what to name the character. Everything you come up with is either No, BO-RING! or No, I’ve already used that one. You could pull out the language tables and 3d6, but that’s boring, too. So, now what?
Or you’re doing worldbuilding, and you don’t want to use cliché names for your cities, like “Landing” or “«worldname» City”. What else can you do?
If you’ve got a connection to the internet, you have access to two tools that just might help: Web Search, and Translation.
Characters, especially recurring NPCs, are supposed to be memorable in some way. It may be appearance, it may be personality, it may be behavior, it may be … whatever. You can use that fact, plus a little bit of work with Google Translate or Bing Translation (or other translation websites, but Bing’s and Google’s are undoubtedly the ‘biggies’), to come up with a name.
First, pick a memorable characteristic, then convert it into the kind of phrase that’s used as a byname in fantasy societies (or barbarian SF societies). As an example, suppose your character’s history has xir losing a hand, and having it replaced by an obvious prosthetic, one that’s made of shiny stainless steel. The obvious byname possibilities are “Steelhand”, “Silverhand”, “hand of steel” or “hand of silver”. Multi-word phrases are more likely to be translatable than oddball compounds, so let’s go with “hand of steel”.
Now, fire up Google Translate. Set the left side to English, and paste in your byname. Now, start picking languages – the more obscure to your gaming group, the better – and see what the translation of your byname is. Google Translate says that “Hand of steel” translates to Xhosa as “isandla sensimbi”, which just might have some possibilities.
So, now that we have the phrase in Xhosa, how do we convert it to a name? You can come up with your own method, but here, I take advantage of the “Yanks in space” meme for Traveller, and try to extract a name that I wouldn’t find out of place in a New York phone directory. “Isandla” has that nice “sand” in the middle – Sandra, Alexander or Alexandra, Lysander, …. Much better options for first names than ‘sensimbi’ offers. But ‘sensimbi’ sounds like any number of ‘African’ names that show up in the directory, so why not just use it as it stands?
So now, your character has a name – Sandy Sensimbi. That was easy.
Sometimes, you’ll want to alter both. Consider a character who runs a gaming (gambling) house. If you punch “master of the casino” into Google Translate, with Arabic as the target language, you get “syd alkazinu”.
Well, “syd” can be used as-is as a first name, but that “alkazinu” doesn’t quite work, if for no other reason than one of your players will immediately key on “alka” and start with the jokes about “Alka-Seltzer”.
Let’s try “master of the gambling club”, instead: “syd nadi alqimar”. Still not right – but which word drops out if we drop “gambling” from the phrase? “Master of the club” turns into “syd alnnadi”, and there’s a little oddity in Arabic which means that “alnnadi” is pronounced as if the l is silent – “annadi”.
That’s actually got possibilities: Syd Annadi, Syd Noddy, what else? Ummm… “Sid/Syd” can be a nickname for “Sidney/Sydney”, so we decide that our character likes to be formal and so, “Sydney Annadi”. I happen to know that the syllable “al” is the indicator for the word “the”, so what happens if we drop it? “Alkazinu” becomes “kazinu”, a fairly obvious borrowing from whatever language gave English the word ‘casino’.
Let’s go back to “alqimar”, and drop the “al”. “Qimar”, but the Arabic sound usually transliterated as “q” doesn’t exist in English, and usually gets mutated (mangled?) to “k” by English-speakers. “Annadi” can yield “Andy” without too much trouble, so we also have “Andy/Andrew Kimar”, or even “Sidney Andrew Kimar” or “Sidney Andrews” (we’re not wedded to the ‘qimar’, after all). And we can mangle “Kimar” as well; weaken the stress on the last syllable, and make the vowel more slack, and “Kimar” becomes “Kimmer”, which is a short morph from “Skimmer” or “Kimmel”, or a slightly longer one from “Skinner”.
So from “master of the gambling club”, we’ve come to “Sidney Andrew Skinner”? Well, yes. But the way you came to it is pretty different, and you’re likely to remember it. Which was the goal, wasn’t it?
Since you’re looking for names, you can’t adhere slavishly to the translations you get. Don’t even try. Use them as inspiration. Take the non-English words, throw in a few vowels, change a few consonants, toss in some different vowels, and see what happens. Use alternate spellings – for example, if you have a criminal mastermind who sorta looks like a frog, … Hmmm. “Boss Frog”. Spanish, “boss” is “jefe”, and “frog” is “rana”, so… “Jeff Ranna”? Take the full name, and use the British spelling: “Geoffrey Ranna”. And that wasn’t even an obscure language.
Use cognates. Flip gender. “Pen name” in kiSwahili is “jina kalamu”, which right there is fine with a bit of respelling – “Gina Calamu”. Except the character is male. Flip “Gina” over to “Gene”, take the long form, “Eugene”, and take the Russian cognate, “Yevgeny”. “Yevgeny Calamu” is your character’s name. Or maybe his alias?
When it comes to translation, some people like Google Translate, others like Bing Translation. Don’t hesitate to use both; their language selections overlap, but each has some obscure languages that the other doesn’t (for example, Xhosa in Google Translate, Klingon in Bing Translation). There are other sites that do free online translations as well, using different wordlists, dictionaries, or algorithms, and maybe language selections as well. Use them, too, if you like.
Start with a name out of a list (e.g., phone directory, team roster, class roll, whatever) or an interesting word (perhaps from a word-of-the-day desk calendar, website, or list), and punch it in to a web search engine with “origin of” or “meaning of”. If you can get the result down to the same sort of epithetical phrase that we started with in the previous section, translate it, and apply changes as above: An example: “Fletcher” is “maker of arrows”. In Mongolian, that comes out as “sumny üildverlegch”. Play with that a bit, and it’s not such a stretch to come up with “Sonny Olverleg”. “Sonny” sounds like a nickname or ‘handle’; try a search on “what is sonny nickname for?”, and we see that it might be the (English) nickname for the Italian name “Santino”, so you’ve managed to extract “Santino Olverleg” from “Fletcher”. Go a bit further. “Santino” sounds like it could also give rise to “Sandy” as a nickname, so “Sandy Olverleg”, then fix “Sandy” back to the formal version and you’ve managed to go from “Fletcher” to “Lysander Olverleg”. Hmmm. That “Olv…” is a little awkward to say. Drop the l. “Lysander Overleg”.
As with translation, there’s more than one search engine out there. The ‘biggies’ seem to be Bing’s, Google’s, Yahoo!’s, and DuckDuckGo’s, and there are also some engines that are really “metasearch” engines; they search primary search engines like Google Search and Bing Search, analyze the results, and consolidate and reorder them based on their own algorithms. Again, use whichever one(s) you prefer, but don’t hesitate to try one of the others once in a while, just in case it ends up leading you down an unexpected but productive path.
Other Techniques to Apply
Best known as a tool in Freudian (Freudulent?) psychoanalysis, word association is simply responding with a word that you think of in response to hearing a different one. This can be a useful tool in creating names, as well. For example: “Einstein” is a name made from compounding “ein” and “Stein”, which Google Translate says is “one stone” in German; in Vietnamese, it comes out as “một hòn đá”. We’ll toss the diacritics: “mot hon da”. “Mot” pretty easily becomes “Matt” becomes “Matthew”, and “hon da” is a brand of motorcycle, and (word association here!) so is Harley-Davidson, which is commonly called “Harley”, so… Einstein is really “Matthew Harley”?
We’ve been doing this all along, more or less. When we change a vowel or consonant to a different one (like ‘mot’ to ‘Matt’), or drop one entirely (like “Olverleg” to “Overleg”), this is what we’re doing. It covers more, though; suppose we decide that we want the resulting name to fit a particular culture? We can take what we come up with, and spell it according to that culture’s rules, changing things where necessary – if, for example, a language does not have the phonemes usually written as ‘ch’ or ‘j’ in English, and all syllables are of the form CV (consonant followed by vowel), then “Richard” gets a little bit mangled when rendered in that language – perhaps ‘Risharidu’. That also falls under ‘sound change’. For a given culture, you might want to try to establish rules for this kind of change, just to ensure consistency. Generally, though, this sort of change will be very nearly the last change you make.
Worldbuilding and City Names
Many of the same techniques described above for character names will work for city names. Descriptive phrases for translation may point to factors of climate or geology or geography. Translating “cliché” names is also useful. Take “Landing”, for example. Of the several alternatives for Uzbek that Google Translate offers, one, “qo’nish joyi”, translates as “landing-place” Let’s go with that. As with Arabic, the ‘Q’ becomes ‘K’, the glottal stop (represented by the apostrophe) drops out, and since ‘sh’ and ‘j’ are similar sounds, we decide to assimilate them: “Konishoy”.
In English, many municipality names combine words for geographical features with words that signal their municipal nature – ‘-town’, ‘-ton’, ‘-ville’, and so on. Or, they’re two-word names, where the second is either the signal for a municipality, or is a characterization thereof or of the geography – ‘Haven’, ‘Harbor’, ‘City’, ‘Point’, and so on. Translate those, too, and don’t necessarily use the same language for both words. “Oyster Bay”: Maori gives “Tio” for “Oyster”, and “Bay” is “Lahti” in Finnish, so why not welcome the characters to “Tiolatti”? Or perhaps the city was founded by a persecuted group? Take what the group calls itself, translate “Haven” into their language (or use a language from Bing Translation or Google Translate as a stand-in), and have your characters check Library Data for “Saxipristan” (from Sākṣī, “Witness” (Nepali), and Przystań, “Haven” (Polish)).