Monday, May 13, 2019

Surprising Literal Translations of American Cities by Alexandra North

Ever wondered how a city got its name?

It may be more surprising than you thought.

In many countries with long histories of one language, such as Italy or China, the city names are well understood by most inhabitants.

But what about countries like the U.S., a melting pot of languages and culture?

What you get is a beautiful, messy assortment of city names in many different languages, and most of the population speaks two languages at most.

For example, even though I grew up in Texas, I don’t speak Spanish, so I couldn’t even tell you many city names throughout the state even mean.

I’m fascinated by the impact that language has on a region - both on the psyche of its inhabitants and how it manifests its influence physically.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from Anthony Burgess: “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”

This infographic from highlights some of the most surprising literal translations of city names throughout the United States.

Here are a few of my favorite translations from the article...

1. Palo Alto, CA - Translates to “Tall Stick”

This highlights the Spanish influence on early California history. Many, many cities throughout the state are in Spanish, and yet a sizable portion of the population couldn’t translate the city name on the spot.

Furthermore, what’s interesting about this one is the place Palo Alto has held in Silicon Valley as the seat of the headquarters of many tech companies. It’s also interesting to think of the world of difference there is in the culture between the modern tech world and the historical impact of the California missions on the region. Cultures mix and collide, and create fascinating results.

2. Des Moines, IA - Translates to “Of the Monks”

What I love about the translation of Des Moines, IA is two things: the fact that it’s French in origin, and that it’s exact translation is up for debate.

There’s a strong French influence in certain pockets of the U.S., but overall there’s a limited number of cities and regions in the French language. Compared to Canada, it’s a small percentage of the U.S. Des Moines, is one of those anomalies.

The region was originally settled in part by Trappist monks (Moines de la Trappe) who established a monastery at the mouth of the Des Moines River. These French-speaking monks had an influence on the region that we still have today, although we normally don’t think of Iowa as a hot-spot of international cultures.

The other part I love is that the origin of the city name is up for debate, another hallmark of some of the challenges of translation. The Native American Algonquian name for the river was Moingona, which may have had an influence on the final city name. We can agree that language is beautiful.

3. Hilo, HI - Translates to “To Twist”

While the Hawaiian language is a mystery to your average U.S. (or world) citizen, it makes up part of the rich tapestry of American heritage and influence.

The translation of Hilo is “to twist”, which may refer either the twisting of humans (seen above) or twisting in the sense of “braiding” or “threading”. Either way, it’s one of our favorite translations.

Hawaiians are very proud of their language, and extensive information has been recorded about Hawaiian place names and their literal translation. The Hawaiian Electronic Library is a fascinating online database with more names than you can memorize. Definitely worth perusing before your next Hawaiian vacation!

Alexandra North is a Translation Studies Masters candidate at Heidelberg University. She loves the intersection of language and societal trends, and works on community outreach with