I’ve made a discovery about superheroes’ secret identities, and I owe it all to Lizzo.
The insight struck as I was on my way to the grocery store with my daughter. Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” started playing on the radio and my daughter said, loudly, “That is NOT Lizzo.” I was about to disagree when I saw what she meant. My car’s info screen likes to display the album cover of whatever song is playing on the radio….
Definitely not Lizzo. The image was the soundtrack from the movie Ant-Man—in Russian.
I looked closer, first to make sure I wasn’t imagining things and then to contemplate the Russian version of Ant-Man. Name powers, activate! Человек-муравей (Chelovyek-muravei) is Russian for “Man-ant.” The translation is direct and straightforward. Which means that Ant-Man isn’t Ant-Man’s name.
Personal names typically aren’t translated but transliterated, preserving the sound rather than the meaning. For a superhero example, take Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. A Russian equivalent of Tony is Тоша (Tosha), and Stark is an English word that could be translated easily enough. But Tony Stark in Russian is simply То́ни Старк (Tony Stark). Iron Man, meanwhile, is translated to Железный человек (Zhelezny chelovyek, “Iron Man”). It seems that super-identities are considered titles or descriptions, while mild-mannered alter egos are names.
Fair enough. Except when I dug a little deeper into Russian versions of American superheroes, the treatment of Ant-Man and Iron-Man started to look less fair. Batman is…Batman (Бэтмен). Superman is Superman (Супермен). The Flash is Flash (Флэш). Batman, Superman and Flash are names in Russian.
I tried to find a pattern that set the named superheroes apart from the translated ones. Perhaps the age of the character, or the media company that created them, or the number of words in the name? No, no and no. The golden-age heroes Wonder Woman and Hawkman are translated in Russian, the 1990s newcomer Deadpool is not. The X-Men hero Wolverine is translated, the X-Men hero Storm is not. Looking for logical patterns was a dead end.
What about the individual heroes themselves? Perhaps there’s something about the characters or their titles that makes some more translation-ready than others. Looking at versions of heroes in multiple countries, the verdict was mixed. Yes, Ant-Man is usually translated while Batman is usually not. But others like Iron Man and Spider-Man are unpredictable, and even Batman was renamed Läderlappen (“Leather Patch”) in Sweden.
The translation decisions probably come down to a bespoke combination of creative, cultural and commercial concerns, with a splash of historical accident for good measure. Spin the wheel of globalization and one character ends up with a name, another with a descriptive title.
Superheroes are strong and brave, so I’m sure they can cope with the inequity. I wonder, though, how it affects the way they’re perceived around the world. Does the consistent naming, or branding, add to Batman’s mystique, or does the comprehensibility of local versions of Ant-Man make him more memorable and relatable? Would I want to be translated? Would you?