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I’m trying to translate a sci-fi novel from Russian to German as a new hobby. Sometimes there are expressions which allude to cultural references which do not exist in German. In general, the novel’s language is very picturesque and funny but in parts also sublime and I’m trying to not lose any of it when translating, but it’s tough sometimes…

Right now I’m stuck on a sentence which involves Zmey Gorynych, a three-headed dragon which is known to every Russian kid and adult, as it is a character of several very popular fairy tales. The protagonist of the novel is himself a dragon, but not an evil one, rather comparable to a scatterbrained professor in a dragon’s body. He is talking to himself a lot in his thoughts, so the reader gets to read his internal monologue frequently. In the sentence in question he says to himself:

Ein Trottel bist du, Zmey Gorynych, …

Obviously, a German reader won’t know Zmey Gorynych, so I searched for analogues: Tabaluga (too childish), Fáfnir and Smaug (not sufficiently well known, I think, also not really fitting as a stupid dragon).

If this won’t work out, maybe it is better to resort to some funny paraphrase. I am thinking about something like sparsam behirnte Riesenschlange or similar but am not sure if this sounds good.

In case, anyone needs more context, the Russian original is available for free on the author’s website (please comment, if so, I will post the link), I can also provide my translation progress so far (but not publicly).

Additional details:

Regarding the etymology of the name "Zmey Gorynych": "Zmeya" means "snake", "zmey" is its masculine form and means something like a wyrm or serpent. Possibly "Gorynych" has some relation with "goret'" (to burn), but the connection is so weak that it is not recognized by people, unless they are etymologists.

Originally "Zmey Gorynych" is a personal name, but it is used as a generic name in the sentence in question.

The dragon in the novel has only one head, so it is not strictly necessary that the dragon, with which he compares himself, has several heads. The dragon is not a sea serpent though, it has four legs and a pair of wings, so it can fly.

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    Offtopic, but are you aware that you can ask questions in German? ;-)
    – HalvarF
    Jun 29 at 17:03
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    Is "Zmey Gorynych" used as a generic name (like dragon) or a personal name (like Tabaluga)?
    – Paul Frost
    Jun 29 at 23:24
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    Originally it is a personal name, but it is indeed used as a generic name in the sentence in question.
    – Photon
    Jun 30 at 3:11
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    It would be helpful to know if some of the name elements actually mean something in Russian (I understand, for examle, that "gory-" is supposed to mean "burn" (correct me if I'm wrong, please).
    – tofro
    Jun 30 at 6:41
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    "Zmeya" means "snake", "zmey" is the masculine form of it and means something like a wyrm or serpent. Possibly "Gorynych" has some relation with "goret'" (to burn), but the connection is so weak that it is not recognized by people, unless they are etymologists. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zmei_(Russian)
    – Photon
    Jun 30 at 7:49
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The dragon of classic German literature is "der Lindwurm" who is killed by Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied. Actually Lindwurm is an old word for dragon, but I only know it in reference to medieval sagas (Nibelungensage, Rolandssage).

A Lindwurm isn't stupid per se (and as far as I understand, Zmey isn't either), but to call a dragon a "wurm" does sound somewhat diminishing to modern ears, and maybe it could work for you with additional attributes or a parody like "Blindwurm", "Lindwürmchen" or something like that.

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    Maybe "Ein Trottel bist du, du minderbemittelter Lindwurm, ..." would fit? Zmey Gorynych isn't stupid per se as well, actually, but he is usually slain by heroes in the fairy tales, so he is at least on the loser side.
    – Photon
    Jun 29 at 17:22
  • It's hard to tell, I don't know the tone of your translation. Would work for me. Maybe someone comes up with a better idea.
    – HalvarF
    Jun 29 at 18:19
  • Der Lindwurm ist immerhin das Wahrzeichen von Klagenfurt.
    – Paul Frost
    Jun 30 at 10:24
  • @Photon qualifying that the Lindwurm is "minderbemittelt" takes away the impact of using "Lindwurm" in the first place - if you have to say that the Lindwurm is lesser, obviously it's not inherent in it. A better choice would be to make clear that he calls himself Lindwurm instead of Dragon to belittle himself - maybe "Ein Trottel bist du, mehr Lindwurm als Drache" would work for you? That makes it clear that the speaker thinks of Lindwurm as notably lesser than Drache. "Mehr Wurm als Drache" would be even more powerful, actually.
    – Syndic
    Jul 1 at 5:23
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    @Photon yeah, you'd have to split the sentence into two to make that flow well. "Ein Trottel bist du, mehr Lindwurm als Drache! Er wollte doch..."
    – Syndic
    Jul 1 at 7:19
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There are a number of famous dragons in German-language literature / mythology, but these usually have 1 or 2 heads. In Japanese monster films, however, there is a three-headed dragon named King Ghidorah, who is at least a little known.

The first-person narrator seems to want to mock the dragon. Correspondingly, I would choose another multiheaded mythical creature. The hydra. For ridicule we combine the hydra with "Verschnitt" or "Imitat".

Ein Verschnitt bezeichnet eine schlechte Ausgabe von einer Sache.

Source

Ein Trottel bist du, du Hydra-Verschnitt, ...

Ein Trottel bist du, du Hydra-Imitat, ...

Even if this is not a very witty insult ^^.


Maybe a better approach

Du [bist ein] trotteliges/dummes/dämliches Hydra-Imitat

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  • That's an interesting idea! Actually, the narrator is the dragon, so he mocks himself, but I think, your proposal still works under this premise.
    – Photon
    Jun 29 at 19:22
  • The only problem I see is that the Hydra is a water creature while the dragon in question is not (it can walk or fly). But I like the "Verschnitt/Imitat" part!
    – Photon
    Jun 29 at 19:27
  • @Photon I personally was not aware that Hydra is a water creature. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyzephalie Ja, es steckt im Namen, doch für mich ist die Vielköpfigkeit das wesentliche Merkmal. Daher folgt die Frage: was ist wichtiger: vielköpfig oder fliegen? Jun 30 at 8:05
  • Der Drache, der sich da über sich selbst lustig macht, hat nur einen Kopf, also ist die Vielköpfigkeit an der Stelle nicht wichtig. In einem anderen Band gibt es eine Kurzgeschichte, wo die Vielköpfigkeit wichtig wird, aber da bin ich noch lange nicht, und es geht dort um einen anderen Drachen, die Wahl des Namen, um den es jetzt geht, muss also nicht für später passend sein.
    – Photon
    Jun 30 at 8:24
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    @ShegitBrahm Done!
    – Photon
    Jun 30 at 8:55
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Both of the named dragons from the Jim Knopf stories could fit quite well: Frau Mahlzahn and Nepomuk, der Halbdrache.

I think a large, though not majority percentage of Germans know either the books or the Augsburger Puppenkiste adaptions. Even those may not remember the names. But that could be enough, you just need to write it in a way that won't leave the reader too stumbled if they don't get the reference.

Frau Mahlzahn is an antagonist who's defeated at the end (like Zmey Gorynych). Furthermore she's a teacher, which would make a good connection to your professor dragon. And the name could stand on its own as a word, so this is what I suggest:

Ein Trottel bist du, Mahlzahn...

Someone who doesn't understand the reference won't get too caught up with this. It could just be taken as a literal description of him grinding his teeth. In fact it could also be read as a variation on “Prost Mahlzeit”, a common sarcastic phrase that would fit here as well.

An alternative that's going to be controversial, but I'm generally rather fond of, would be to make use of footnotes. There are multiple ways this could be done, from literally explaining the Russian name to inventing something new – but that would probably be taking your artistic freedom as a translator a bit too far.

(Incidentally, Michael Ende used a few footnotes in the Jim Knopf books!)

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Mein erster Impuls hier wäre "Was bist Du doch für eine Blindschleiche!", eine kleine beinlose Eidechse (ein Drache wird typischerweise eher als eine bebeinte und geflügelte Schlange gesehen). "Blind" wird im deutschen in Sprachkombinationen wie "Blindgänger" verwendet und findet auch als Beleidigung etwa in "Du Blindfisch" Verwendung, um ein Übersehen von Offensichtlichkeiten zu brandmarken.

Im normalen Sprachgebrauch ist "Blindschleiche" nicht negativ behaftet; im Gedankengang eines Drachens würde ein solcher Sprachgebrauch aber meiner Meinung nach sofort und mit einem gewissen komischen Effekt verstanden werden.

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As clarified by Photon, "Zmey Gorynych" is used as a generic name. The dragon says to himself something like

Ein Trottel bist du, [generic name] Zmey Gorynych

I suggest

Ein Dummkopf bist Du, Drache

Ein Hohlkopf bist Du, Drache

O Du hohlköpfiger Drache

Moreover, since the Russian word stands for something like a serpent or a wyrm, one could replace Drache by Lindwurm (perhaps a bit outdated) or Tatzelwurm (still used in Alpine folklore).

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If you want something that means "he's a fool", use "Leuchte" (somewhat like "Armleuchter") that also has some connotation to "burn".

"Wurmleuchter" would be understood as such (but already pretty much on the "idiot" side.)

"Tatzelleuchter" would also be a nice one, connotating to the German "Tatzelwurm" (fabulous reptile).

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    What? None of what you said would make me think of a slightly stupid dragon.
    – Olafant
    Jun 30 at 22:39
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All the names and characters mentioned so far would not work in the least for me. I'm afraid I cannot say there is a popular archetypical stupid dragon in Germany, of the type you describe.

That said, your own suggestion of "sparsam behirnte Riesenschlange" would be totally workable! "Riesenschlange" would be quite an invention of yourself - but still acceptable and understandable, and sufficiently skuril to give the whole thing a nice athmosphere.

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