Ester Vidal

Do you like fantasy?

Do you love to enter imaginary worlds and let your imagination run wild?

You truly immerse yourself in the story; and with fantasy, the possibilities are endless.

From elves to dragons, humans to multiple gods, you'll encounter all kinds of interesting people (and creatures) in your adventures. Whether you're laughing at Hermione's wisecracks in Harry Potter, crying at the death of another beloved character in Game of Thrones, or just feeling the tension as the heroes battle the villains in Lord of the Rings, reading fantasy is the ultimate escape from reality.

But translating fantasy is not always so fantastic. It's a constant process of decision-making and problem-solving, some conscious and some not. It involves dealing with words, expressions, or passages that may pose an issue.

Let's look at a few situations where I'd like to wave my magic wand, shout “accio” and summon an owl with the perfect translation.

Poems and songs
Sometimes it is impossible to change some words or sentences because they are relevant to the plot, they appear next to related images or maps… In addition, they must have a nice rhythm and a seamless rhyme in the target language.

Puns and wordplay

The thought process is similar because they usually refer to a character, a conversation, a scene or a hint of future developments. 

For example, the translation of the English anagram Tom Marvolo Riddle > I am Lord Voldemort.

  • Spanish: Tom Sorvolo Ryddle > Soy lord Voldemort
  • German: Tom Vorlost Riddle > Ist Lord Voldemort


Names of people, fantastic creatures, fictional places or even magic spells
Authors frequently use catchy names that evoke an immediate mental image when read or heard, and we should always consider how the reader of the translation will react.

Let me explain the three most common options with the translation into French from Harry Potter spells.

  • Keep the original word: lumos > lumos
    It remained the same in French because the French word for “light” is “lumière”, so any French child would understand it.
  • Adapt it to the spelling in the target language: stupefy > stupéfix

    In this case, the translator reproduced the English pronunciation with letters more commonly used in French.

  • Invent a new word in the target language: scourgify > récurvite
    “Scour” in French is “récurer”, and “vite” means “hurry”.


An author's intricate and elaborate fantasy world
Every so often, the action takes place in an unfamiliar place and time, a universe with its own rules and creatures. It’s easy to write about London in 2023, but you must give a more complete description to envision Tolkien's Middle-earth or Martin's Westeros.
It is a great challenge to recreate this imaginary world without loss for the reader of another language. The translator needs a lot of creativity, alertness and attention to detail to describe this fictional world and bring it closer to the reader.

For the translator, the best allies in this fantastic adventure are authors and reviewers. Although it is not always possible, being able to communicate directly with both makes the job much easier.

Maintaining a good relationship with an author can be very beneficial, and discussing their book with them can be a rewarding experience. More than any dictionary, native speaker, or Internet search, direct contact with the writer is invaluable to shed light on complicated passages, resolve ambiguities or make decisions about the translation of proper nouns.

It is also important to build a good team with the reviewer. After all, they are your first audience. Nobody is perfect, and a fresh pair of eyes can really improve the translation. Don't be afraid to get their opinion on tricky paragraphs to make sure they are clear, ask if the words you invented make sense, and accept their tweaks to the text.

And, last but not least, you will enjoy the process of translation a lot more if you like reading fantasy.
This quote from the brilliant George R.R. Martin explains my feelings about fantasy much better than I could.

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real… for a moment at least… that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle-earth.

(Originally published in The Faces of Fantasy: Photographs by Pati Perret ©1996 by Pati Perret)