The River Lethe

I’m having trouble deciding what to do with a character’s name in my current novel translation and am hoping you will help…

Generally, names are never translated. Why would they be? Raskolnikov is Raskolnikov. Candide is Candide. But in my particular conundrum, there is meaning behind the Spanish name that is  not conveyed in English.

Her name is Olvido and she is born to a family of cursed women. Her mother, Manuela, is trying desperately to put an end to her family’s past shame. For this reason she gives her daughter a name that essentially means forget, forgotten, obscurity, oblivion.

Olvido is a somewhat unusual name in Spanish, but it does work and the meaning is immediately apparent to anyone who reads it. This is not so in English. The name would work, yes. But the meaning is completely lost on English readers. So, what do I do?

One option is simply to leave the name as is, but I feel I may have to work in an explanation of what it means. I don’t love that option because adding information can be awkward, clunky and detract from the story.

The other option is to replace it with another name that has a similar meaning. I spent a while researching baby names on the Internet, but unsurprisingly not many people want their child’s name to have such an unflattering connotation! The best I could find were the names Lethia or Letha, both from the Greek, referring to the River Lethe in Hades, known as the river of oblivion.

Either of these names could possibly work, but I still feel readers would miss the meaning behind them. I certainly had no idea what their origin was, and I’m likely not alone.

My partner, Jon, gets to listen to me mutter aloud whenever I’m reasoning through a thorny translation issue and was subjected to this yesterday. As a native English speaker who studied Greek myths in school, he confirmed that neither Olvido, Lethia or Letha offer any sense of forgetting or oblivion.

“Why don’t you call you her Oblivia?” he asked.

I guffawed… then stopped… and considered it. It just might work. It is by no means a common English name, but neither is Olvido in Spanish. It sounds like it could actually be a Spanish name, which is important for a novel set there. And the meaning or play on words would be quite apparent to any English reader.

What do you think? Should I leave the name as Olvido? Add an explanation, even if it isn’t a particularly elegant approach? Change it to Lethia or Letha because more people than I think would understand the root? Or use the made-up name Oblivia that could pass for a Spanish name and has the same connotation? Or maybe you have another idea entirely. If so, I’d love to hear it!