Is It Important to Translate People’s Names?

Is It Important to Translate People’s Names?
Increasingly, translating names from one language to another is viewed as a basic human right and not simply a polite nicety.

Have you ever called a customer support line and been connected to a cheerful fellow clearly located in India or The Philippines or some other foreign land, only to be told with a straight face that you are speaking to Bob or Bill?

There’s a simple reason workers at call centres located in foreign countries use ridiculously Western names – and obviously false ones, at that. It has nothing to do with fooling you – no one expects you to believe that the man with the thick accent living in New Delhi is named Tom. No, the whole point is to make things easier on you, because you as the customer shouldn’t have to spend time and energy learning how to pronounce a difficult or unfamiliar name. Whatever it says about Western culture and the experiences of Indian Call Centre employees, the whole point is to not make you work too hard to get customer service.

What’s In a Name?

The fact is, names are important. Knowing someone’s name is the first step to knowing them as a person, and getting someone’s name right is a vital part of polite interaction. Think about the last time you spoke to Tim at a foreign call centre: Did they get your name right? Were you (or would you be) annoyed if they didn’t? Of course you would. Your name is part of your identity.

Names are becoming increasingly controversial in translation work, because it is often the most difficult aspect of a translation project to bring a name into another language. After all, it’s expected that there is a word for “building” in every language you’re working in. But what about a Japanese name, written using the Japanese script? How do you accurately bring it over to English?

Basic Human Right

In the modern world as trade barriers go down and cultural barriers become more clearly defined as the real challenge before us all, the idea that businesses and governments should get your name right has been elevated to the status of a right. This might seem a bit silly, at first; after all, I once received a magazine subscription addressed to a horrific mangling of my name for years without complaint.

But think about the way names were handled during the immigration boom in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The lack of value the country placed on the flood of European immigrants was apparent in the lazy way immigration workers casually renamed people when they had any trouble pronouncing or spelling their actual names. Identities and family histories were stolen left and right – there are people today who have trouble tracing their family histories because of this policy, which broke the connection between them and their ancestors. When viewed in that light, a person’s name must be translated correctly, every time.

Image courtesy john.ellingsworth.org