Why we do or don’t translate some proper nouns

Each language has its own grammatical rules, alphabet and system of pronunciation. For this reason personal names or names of places can change depending on these rules.

Most people can understand what we mean when we say Christopher Colombus. However, actually it changes depending on the language you are speaking.

In Catalan  →  Cristòfor Colom
In Polish     →  Krzysztof Kolumb

In Portuguese   →  Cristóvão Colombo
In Dutch   →  Christoffel Columbus

In German   →  Christoph Kolumbus

In French  →  Christophe Colomb

In English  →  Christopher Columbus

In Italian  →  Cristoforo Colombo


Different translation procedures for translating personal names, famous names and all proper names have been presented. However, there is no agreement among translators about translating proper nouns. Some of them don’t agree on translating names, but they accept translating when it is necessary for some languages for example Arabic or Russian. Some of them translate proper nouns and they think it depends on culture or traditional phraseology.



Translators at work
Translators at work

Generally personal names are left untranslated. Some cases, exceptions of this basic implementation can be seen and translation may be required depending on languages. For instance we can see different syntax of name and surname in Chinese and Japanese.

If we want to mention famous place names for instance Paris, we should know that ways to say Paris also depend on languages.


Which countries use


to refer to the city ?

Albanian Armenian Cebuano
Basque Azerbaijani Filipino
Danish Georgian Indonesian
French Mongolian Javanese
German Vietnamese Malagasy
Icelandic Turkish Malay
Norwegian Romanian Maori
Portuguese Slovenian Cebuano


And of course you can find different phraseology:


Bosnian Pariz
Catalan París
  Croatian Pariz
Czech Paříž
Dutch Parijs
Estonian Pariis
Irish Páras
Italian Parigi
Latvian Parīze
Polish Paryż
Slovak Paríž
Uzbek Parij


Although there are some differences, most of people from different countries can understand “Paris”. There is no problem with names of relatively unimportant settlements that are carried over unchanged in translation. The town of Rauma does not change its name, nor does London, Ontario.

Apart from the fact of how we say it and how we understand it, what is the reason of those differences?

A translation of a famous place name can be made specifically according to the language to be translated. If strategy and translation are not translated in general according to the culture, it will be clearer to continue to use it in this way. The strategies to be followed for translating private names in some countries have been determined by the relevant institutions. It would be appropriate to leave the translation rules flexible in terms of being suitable for the purpose of translation.


Grammar rules


Not only each language has its own rules, but each translator’s own translation style and translation has a purposeful difference. When we want to put general rules on the translation of proper names, it is clear that these rules are not suitable in all cases. So the flexibility of the translation allows for a more accurate and clear translation.


by Melis Yildirim




If you have enjoyed this article, please, read also Inheritance of a proper name or secret relations between common nouns and human appellations.


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