Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Translating Proper Nouns and Names

Over the past week, we've looked at how translating numbers and money as well as dates and times can depend on the language or region you're dealing with. Today, we're going to focus on something even trickier: translating proper nouns and names!

In case you aren't already aware, proper nouns refer to a specific person, place or thing. For example, Paris is a proper noun since it refers to a specific city, while Neptune is a proper noun that refers to a specific planet. In English, proper nouns are generally easy to identify because they're capitalized no matter where they are located in a sentence, unlike most other nouns.

Here are several different types of proper nouns that often cause problems in translations:

Names of People

The exterior of Seville Cathedral, which is thought to contain
the remains of famous explorer Christopher Columbus.
It should come as no surprise that when it comes to the names of people, the general rule is to keep them exactly the same in both languages, or as close to the original as possible when dealing with different writing systems. This applies whether you're dealing with a text that mentions a political figure like Barack Obama, a famous musician like Madonna, or your mother.

That said, there are some exceptions, especially when it comes to older historical figures. One great example of this is explorer Christopher Columbus, who is known as Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, Cristoforo Colombo in Italian, and Christophe Colomb in French, to name just a few of the variations.

A couple of other examples include Genghis Khan (Gengis Kan in Spanish), Julius Caesar (Jules César in French) and Aristotle (Aristoteles in German).

Names of Places and Landmarks

Place and landmark names can often be a bit trickier. When it comes to smaller places that aren't well-known, it's fairly safe to assume that there isn't a standard translation for the foreign language you're translating into. However, large cities, famous locations, and countries often do have standard translations in other languages. A few examples include London (Londres in Spanish), Germany (Deutschland in German), and the Statue of Liberty (Statue de la Liberté in French).

If you want to see even more examples of differing place names, check out our post from way back in 2012 that covered all kinds of interesting endonyms and exonyms.

Names of International Organizations

When it comes to international organizations, there are often standard or official translations of their names for various languages. A quick Google search, a look at the organization's official website, or even Wikipedia can usually help you when your translation contains such a name.

A couple of popular examples include Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières in French) and the United Nations (Organización de las Naciones Unidas in Spanish).

Names of Companies and Products

Most company and product names are going to be the same no matter which language you're using since having one unique name that is universally used is important for marketing purposes. That's why it's so easy to order a Coca-Cola no matter what country you're in, even if you don't speak the language!