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I am currently re-reading Harry Potter in English as my first language is French. It appears that Severus Snape is translated into Severus Rogue in French.

With a little bit of research, I found out that even if his name is not translated in every translation of the books, it's still a pretty common thing. I'll take the Italian translation as an example which uses Severus Piton. While I understand the correlation between Snape and Piton, both kind of alluding to snakes, this is not obvious with the French version.

In French, "rogue" describe someone who is gloomy, arrogant and stiff. It's obvious that it's a good description of the character, but then again I can't find any good reason to go from Snape to Rogue as it's not even similar. And it's is no way close to snake related words or expressions.

So does Snape have a meaning in any dialect or former English or current English that could explain why JKR named him this way?

  • 4
    In what language does Snape allude to snakes? – user14111 Jul 29 at 14:12
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    @user14111 Snape sounds like snake and Piton (italian) refers to python (written pitone in italien) – LeaG Jul 29 at 15:41
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    This doesn't answer the question, but in addition to sounding like "snake" it also resembles "snipe," and he does have a brusque, snipish way of talking. – scottef Jul 29 at 22:10
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    @user14111 Names sounding similar to a related thing or concept is a common trope in literature, specially on books made by or for younger audiences. Some examples for Harry Potter: Slytherin (slithering, as the movement of snakes), Snape (as in Snake, since he belongs to Slytherin), Draco (as Dragon, a different type but still an evil reptile), Gregory Goyle ("Greg Goyle", a pun on gargoyle - strong and dumb as a rock), Crabbe (Crabbe being a scottish name related to rocks, probably alluding both to his strength and density - dumb as a rock. Also keeps the rocky theme with Goyle) and so on. – T. Sar Jul 30 at 11:32
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    This reminds me of a (completely unrelated) dialogue in Dr Strange (where Dr Steven Strange is the protagonist) which sounds great in English but is completely untranslatable to French. Dr Strange meets his opponent (Kaecilius) for he first time → Kaecilius: How long have you been at Kamar-Taj, Mister… Dr. Stephen Strange: Doctor. Kaecilius: Mister Doctor. Dr. Stephen Strange: It’s Strange. Kaecilius: Maybe. Who am I to judge? – WoJ Jul 30 at 13:14
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As far as I know, Rowling has never stated a particular meaning to "snape" that relates to the character, although the common theory is indeed that it sounds like "snake".

This article on translating Harry Potter into Yiddish mentions both the French and Italian translations in discussing how translation of the names is difficult because some are wordplay in-universe and others are out-of-universe puns.

One common question: What to do about names? Throughout the novels, Rowling either gives her characters traditional British monikers like Cornelius or Hermione—which have no equivalent in many foreign languages—or she chooses names that connote something about the character in question. Thus, the wizard Sirius Black is later revealed to possess the ability to transform into a black dog, as foreshadowed by his name’s reference to Sirius, the Dog Star.

As he examined prior foreign editions, Viswanath discovered that different translators had taken dramatically different approaches. “French went totally out there,” he said. “They renamed [Severus] Snape to ‘Rogue.’ In Italian they renamed him ‘Piton’ [snake]. French even changed the name of Hogwarts” to Poudlard, which means “bacon lice.” In his own work, Viswanath didn’t find such radical revisions necessary for the most part, because “Yiddish is a Germanic language, so the English sounds are not that foreign.” Thus, Harry’s classmate Neville Longbottom remained Longbottom, rather than “longtuchus.”

In some cases, however, it was necessary to rename characters to preserve Rowling’s intent, which is how Quidditch captain Oliver Wood became Oliver Holtz. In the novel, Harry is introduced to Wood by professor Minerva McGonagall after he demonstrates remarkable skill chasing another student in midair on a broomstick. Thinking he is about to be disciplined for breaking the rules, he misinterprets her meaning when she asks another teacher if she can “borrow Wood for a moment,” wondering “was wood a cane she was going to use on him?” Needless to say, this wordplay would not work unless Wood’s name referred to wood—or holtz—in Yiddish, and so Viswanath rebranded the character, even though he’d found that many “other languages don’t try to do it,” leaving readers somewhat confused.

I suspect that the French translation may have been riffing off of one definition of the Middle English word "snape", from Old Norse sneypa ("to outrage, dishonor, disgrace")

To rebuke; revile, criticize

Given Snape's tendency to belittle those around him, it seems like an apropos word to use, and "Rogue" captures some of the same meaning of someone being a bit on the bad side, which is closer to the Old Norse origin. That said, I suspect this is more of a happy accident than intention.

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    Thank you for your answer ! It's a very good explanation ! The French translator is actually very talented and did a lot of research and work to be really accurate and still be "child-reader" friendly, so it may be intentional :) However if it's just a happy coincidence, this is very cool. – LeaG Jul 29 at 14:04
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    Interestingly, in the Hebrew translation Wood's name is merely "Wood" transliterated (ווד) so Harry's thought indeed won't make so much sense to non-bilingual readers. – Alex Jul 29 at 23:38
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    Actually, the fact that "snape" is a dialect word in current English (see alephzero's answer), makes that answer more relevant than the accepted one. – Gnudiff Jul 30 at 5:45
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    "...traditional British monikers like Cornelius or Hermione—which have no equivalent in many foreign languages..." that's odd, considering that Cornelius is an ancient Roman name and Hermione is Helen of Troy's daughter in Greek mythology. – gboeing Jul 31 at 21:26
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"Snape" is a dialect word in most of Northern and Eastern England, with a wide range of meanings:

  • To check, rebuke, offend.
  • To blight, nip, wither.
  • To deprive, starve.
  • To catch, destroy.
  • To restrain a person or animal by holding the scruff of their neck.
  • To deceive, disappoint.
  • To make something taper to a point (e.g. a blacksmith "snapes" a piece of iron).

In one area (Lincolnshire) it also has the meaning of "to be foolish, silly, not quite right in the head".

I don't know if these dialect meanings extend from Northern England into Scotland, but several of them have some resonance with Snape's character and behaviour, though the French translator's "rogue" doesn't really match these attributes, and none of them have any reference to snakes.

Ref: English Dialect Dictionary online and personal knowledge from living in the area.

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J.K. Rowling got the name "Snape" from an English village

In multiple interviews, starting as far back as 1999 (shortly after book three was published), J.K. Rowling said that the name Snape came from a location in Britain.

I take names from places too. Dursley is a place in Britain as is Snape.

The Boston Globe, October 18, 1999

Many of the names are invented, for example "Quidditch" and "Muggle." I also collect unusual names, and I take them from all sorts of different places. "Hedwig" was a saint, "Dumbledore" is an old English word for "bumblebee," and "Snape" is the name of a place in England.

eToys interview, Fall 2000

Many of the names are taken from maps -- for instance, Snape, which is an English village.

AOL online chat, October 2000

I am a bit of a name freak. A lot of the names that I didn't invent come from maps. Snape is a place name in Britain.

Larry King Live, October 20 2000

Presenter: Super. That was a very popular question, as is this one that’s been sent in by X from Cardiff who would like to know, how you come up with all the fantastic names for the beasts and characters in HP.

JKR: Erm, I, I, kind of collect unusual names. You have to be very careful about telling me your name if you do have an unusual name because I'll probably put you in a book ... and I make a lot of the names up. But mostly maps. Maps are a great source for names ...

Presenter: Really?

JKR: Yeah. Dursley and Dudley and Snape are all, erm, places I can't visit anymore obviously.

Blue Peter, March 12 2001

The first name "Severus", comes from a street sign in Clapham

Real Harry Potter inspiration alert: I walked past this sign every day on my way to work when I was living in Clapham . Much later - post-publication - I revisited the area & suddenly realised THIS was why 'Severus' had leapt into my head when thinking of a 1st name for Snape.

Street sign saying "Borough of Battersea | SEVEREUS ROAD. S.W.11

Twitter, May 23 2020

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  • 9
    Well there's canon for you. – Rand al'Thor Jul 30 at 20:55
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    While I’ve definitely upvoted some of the other answers, including the accepted one, this is the one that deserves to be accepted; it is the correct answer. – Fivesideddice Jul 31 at 11:38
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Although snape had a meaning in Middle English -- a meaning which derived not from Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic language), but from Old Norse (a Danish language) - that was five centuries ago, or more.

The French o/p deserves to be told, in plain terms, that the word has no meaning in Modern English.

The entire basis of the name to the modern reader is that it sounds like the word "snake". The same derivation, in fact, as the name Slytherin, a name that sounds like the word "slithering" -- something snakes do.

The French reader might be interested to know that, in English, style is sometimes more important than meaning. Accordingly, the name "Severus Snape" has an additional implication: the aliteration, in using a name which has the letter 'S' begin both the first name and the surname, has an effect even though neither is a dictionary word -- the fact that the letter 's' recurs three times in that name makes it impossible to speak the name aloud without it sounding like a hiss, of a snake, that reproduces the 'sss' sound which snakes are said to make when hissing.

Thus, despite being just a name, i.e. with neither part of the name bearing a dictionary meaning, it nevertheless comes across as sounding like the hiss of a snake.

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    Old Norse, too, is a Germanic language. Danish is also a Germanic language and there is no group of ‘*Danish languages’. – Jan Jul 30 at 6:10
  • "Slytherin" is how you say "Slithering" in Texas, no? :) – Mad Physicist Jul 30 at 18:17
  • @Jan. Not to mention that the post above offers good evidence that snape does have meaning in modern English. – Mad Physicist Jul 30 at 18:18
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She got the name Snape from the village in Suffolk, which is 5 miles from Aldeburgh. It means an area of boggy, or marshy ground. That's exactly what it's like in the estuary of the River Alde. Probably even more so when the Anglo Saxons first settled the area.

JK Rowling interview (AOL Live-Oct 19th 2000):

Many of the names are taken from maps -- for instance, Snape, which is an English village.

"Harry Potter--Interview with J.K. Rowling"

The only other village called Snape is in North Yorkshire, but it's not likely to be the one she was referring to.

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    JKR has stated in interviews that she often used place names as character surnames. Off the top of my head, I know that Dursley, Bagshot, and Trelawney are also names of UK towns, and Grindelwald is a village in Switzerland, I think. I'll see if I can find a source for that interview. – anaximander Jul 30 at 10:21
  • This answer doesn't make sense. It contradicts itself: the meaning can't be bog or marsh, if the name occurs both in North Yorkshire and Suffolk, because placenames in Suffolk derive from the kingdom of the East Angles, a Saxon tribe who spoke Anglo-Saxon, but place names in Yorkshire derive from the Danish language spoken by the Vikings of the Danelaw. And although it might be reasonable to associate Suffolk, in low-lying East Anglia, which is partly below sea-level, with marshes, there is no equivalent geographical feature in the North Riding that's in any way similar to an East Anglian fen. – Ed999 Jul 31 at 23:43
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I believe that Snape originated from two words:

  • Snake: Slytherin emblematic animal, Snape's House;
  • Snap: Snape's manner of talking ("Silence!")

What's more, Severus is developed from the word "severe".

Rowling did a great job making up meaningful names, though some languages can't convey the same feeling of this name.

Here are some other translations of Severus Snape:

  • Dutch: Severus Sneep (literal translation)
  • Finnish: Severus Kalkaros (literal translation)
  • Hungarian: Perselus Piton (Piton - Python, a snake)
  • Latvian: Severuss Strups (Strups - brusque, curt, snappish)
  • Lithuanian: Severas Sneipas (Sheipas - snout, no idea why so)
  • Norwegian: Severus Slur (possibly developed from slange - snake)
  • Welsh: Sefran Sneip (transliteration)

Translated to my native Russian language, this sounds like "Snegg". It did not come from some words, but it pretty much conveys the character for native Russian speakers.

Anyway, I usually imagine characters with their original names, as the original work is the most accurate version and tells us exactly what the author wanted to tell.

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