Lost in translation

Living in a multicultural nation and working in an even more multicultural organisation, translation and its attendant problems are often at the forefront of my mind. And yet while the necessity for translation is never questioned, one thing about translation has always bugged me: why do we translate names?

For a practical example of this, simply drive southwest from Brussels and you’ll see signs directing you to “Mons” and “Bergen”. This is one and the same town, but the name is listed twice: in French and Flemish. Or drive northwest towards Lille and you’ll see signs for “Lille”, but also for “Rijsel”, which is what the locals in Flanders call it.

Now presumably there are historical reasons for why English people say “Finland” instead of “Suomi”, or why the Deutsch are referred to as “Allemands”, “Tedeschi” or “Germans” in other parts of the continent, and presumably this force of habit is the reason why, like many irrational aspects of language, it’s just something we’ve got used to and isn’t likely to change any time soon. But it still irritates me. Especially because of the inconsistency. We say “Tuscany” instead of “Toscana”, but then we manage to pronounce all the other Italian region names the same way as the Italians do. It’s not as if the originals pose pronunciation problems for non-natives, or, as is the case of the full name for Bangkok, the issue of having to draw breath several times while you try to say it.

While it may grate slightly to hear someone speaking in English and then dropping in a foreign name, with an attempt at the correct foreign pronunciation: “Yah, we spent the summer in Toscana this year”, to me it seems the only logical and respectful way to do it.

But the one I find even more bizarre is the tendency in some countries to translate people‘s names. I know several Greeks living in Brussels who, presumably for the sake of integration and convenience refer to themselves as “Georges”, when in fact their original Greek name is “Giorgios”. And once when I was teaching English in Genoa and we were discussing the royal family, I was asked a question about “Principe Carlo”. It took a good few seconds before I realised that they meant Prince Charles. No English person would dream of seriously calling the king of Spain “King John Charles”. He’s King Juan Carlos. My name is my name, and I don’t want you to change it to something more familiar to you from your own culture, thank you very much.

I am untranslatable.


7 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. Erik R. May 2, 2013 / 10:03 am

    I love a good “this will never change, but it annoys me” blog rant. I touched on the royal names issue just over two years ago and I audibly bitched about it just the other day as the Spanish press were covering the Netherlands’ new King “Guillermo”.


      • Erik R. May 2, 2013 / 1:11 pm

        Hebrew is a language, not a religion. I was just pointing out the irony that your name is already an anglicization of a more original version.


  2. bawa June 13, 2013 / 6:36 pm

    Agree totally! Worked once teaching English where they gave all the teachers and students “English names” & I just couldn’t remember. I think because names somehow belong, and these false names were such a mismatch to the person that they remained elusive.
    And when I miss the motorway to Lille, because I keep seeing Rijsel….

    Having said that, I am forever being asked the “meaning” of my name, which is baffling. Why does an Indian name have to have a meaning? I mean many do, but mine actually was invented by an Uncle to rhyme with my elder sister’s, but this explanation really never satisfies the Westerner looking for the deep mystical meaning into everything Indian.

    The other thing that happens (pretty often in the UK), are people who say, “Oh, that’s too difficult, I am just going to call you Suzy/Pat/…”. I have a relative who has the answer pat to that one by now, “OK, and I am going to call you Surinder!”


    • simonlitton June 13, 2013 / 10:08 pm

      “The Westerner looking for the deep mystical meaning into everything Indian”
      Oh yes, that rings a bell.


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