Translating "Superman"

Friday, April 19, 2013  |  Comments: 4

Here is a question sent by Lachlan Dale via Facebook that I thought I would answer here, as it brings up some interesting linguistic choices regarding translation. Ever the teacher, I'll seize the opportunity to perhaps teach some dear reader a little about language in general. The original message is as follows:

Hi sorry this is probably a stupid question but I saw that you spelt "Superman" in Kryptonese on your site without an "e" I just want to check it this is 100% correct as I've seen some people with tattoos with the "e" and I'm planning on getting it and would hate to have it wrong on me forever haha a little explanation on why no "e" if this is the case would REALLY be appreciated THANK YOU in advance :)

Not a stupid question at all! At the heart of this inquiry is the question: "How do you translate the name, Superman?" There are really three ways to respond. I'll let the reader choose which they prefer.

Option 1: Code Switching

Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Magritte To understand code switching you first have to understand one fundamental concept: writing is not language; it's a way of recording or representing language—a way of encoding it into some other form. We live in such a literate society that many people have a hard time separating the two. Thus, it bears repeating: writing is not language any more than a cassette tape is language, a recipe book is food, or that picture in your wallet is your child. The artist Magritte pointed out this concept in his painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). As Magritte was pointing out with his painting, even though most people would look at his painting and say, "that's a pipe," it's not a pipe; it's a picture of a pipe. In the same way, writing is not language, it's just a "picture" of language—and often not a very good one at that.

With that concept firmly in place, we can talk about our first option in translating which is to simply not actually do any translation at all. If our main goal is just to convey the idea or the sense of something foreign or alien, then we can just use different symbols to render the same language. This is what linguists call "code switching"—exact same information encoded differently.

To get our desired sense of "alienness" all we have to do is make a different set of shapes that correspond to each letter of the Roman Alphabet, switch the standard letters for our new ones, and we're done. Same information. Same arrangement. Same structure. Just different symbols—different encoding.

For creators, there are some attractive benefits to doing things this way: It takes far less time and fewer resources to make a set of symbols compared to a whole new language, and once the symbols are created you are essentially done with it. It very clearly gets across the idea that your characters are speaking a foreign language without having to do any work whatsoever, you can even convey a sense of the character's culture (or at least the imagined foreign language) just by the way your symbols look. If done right, it lets you form a deeper connection to your devoted fan base without alienating (no pun intended) newcomers; for the devoted fan base, there is a low "price of admission" to being in the "in" group who can read the encoded messages (learning a new set of symbols for something you already know is FAR easier than learning a new language).

So, it should come as no surprise that code switching is exactly what DC Comics has done in their publications since 2000.

In other words, "official" Kryptonian really isn't Kryptonian at all, it's just English (or French, or German, or Spanish, etc.) with a different font. Using DC's font for our symbols (letters), we can render "Superman" as: Superman

Option 2: Transliteration

The next important concept is an easy enough one: different languages have different phonetic inventories, i.e., the set of sounds and the rules on how and when they can be used is different for different languages. If we want to adopt a word from one language (source) into another (target) rather than translating it, which would be to find a word with equivalent meaning which already exists in the target language, we have to take that word and, if necessary, make changes to it until it fits within the phonetic structure of our target language.

Likewise, a particular writing system is geared around the phonetic structure of the language it is being used to represent. Along with to the possible sound changes, we have to use the rules and symbols of that language's writing system to convey our borrowed word.

This act of using one writing system to render words from a foreign language is called transliteration (this is what "Kryptonese" is on this site). For example, I can take the Japanese: "ありがとうございます!" and transliterate it into the Roman alphabet as: "arigatou gozaimasu!" Please take notice that this is NOT translation. A translation would be: "thank you very much!" Please also note that the focus is on the sounds of the word NOT its spelling.

So, let's do a break down of how we would transliterate "Superman" as a proper name. Most of the sounds in the word do have a corresponding sound in Kryptonian and are pretty straightforward, with one exception...

As we can start to see from the above is that the "er" in "Superman" represents a syllabic r in spoken English. It just so happens that Kryptonians write syllabic Rs without a preceding vowel unlike the English writing system. This leaves us with the Kryptonian: suprmAn. When we then transliterate that back into Kryptonese we get: /suprman/.

Option 3: Translation

Our final option is to take "Superman" as more of a designation (Super Man) than a proper name and do an actual translation. This requires the least explanation as this is what people are used to thinking about when they think of translation.

So a literal translation would render the word: ZIuSod.

To be fair, though, a better translation into Kryptonian would use the gender-neutral word for person, Sed. While "Superperson" sounds pretty lame in English, it sounds perfectly fine in Kryptonian. In fact, it conveys respect. On the other hand, using the gendered version implies familiarity or friendship, or, in the right context, condescension and contempt. I could see Superman using the gender-specific form purposefully as a way to convey friendship/kinship with those he seeks to help. These two forms would not really be mutually exclusive in Kryptonian either and could/would be freely interchanged to convey differing levels of respect and/or familiarity.


So there you have the incredibly long-winded answer to the question of how to translate "Superman". Again I leave it up to the reader to choose which answer fits their purposes best:

Comments (4)

  1. how to lose weight in 2 weeks:
    Jun 15, 2013 at 02:54 AM

    It's not my first time to pay a visit this web site, i am browsing this web site dailly and take nice facts from here everyday.


    1. Darren Doyle:
      Jun 17, 2013 at 07:01 PM

      Thanks! Glad you like it!


  2. Danny:
    Jul 13, 2014 at 06:26 PM

    Hi, I wanted to get my daughters birthday written in Kryptonian around the Superman Shield I have tattooed on my arm but I am having trouble finding a translation and I am not very good with languages. I was wondering if you would be able to help.
    Thank you for your time


  3. Gabe:
    Feb 15, 2019 at 01:55 PM

    No, thank rao


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