Proper Names - To Translate or Not to Translate

September 15th, 2014
Proper Names - To Translate or Not to Translate | One Hour Translation

The rule about proper names in translation work is very simple: There really are no rules.

In translation, as in many things, there are very few rules that have exactly zero exceptions. This is one of the maddening things about translation services – you start off learning all these useful rules that help you organise your thoughts when taking on translation work, and then over the course of acquiring experience you begin collecting exceptions to these rules.

One or two here and there isn’t so bad – you update your inner map of the world and move on. Eventually, though, you realise that there are so many exceptions to some of these rules that they aren’t rules at all. They get downgraded to guidelines, then to ideal worlds, and finally to the status of myth. And then you realise you’re right back where you started, without rules to guide you.

One of these rules is the rule about proper names in translation work. The initial rule you’re given as a young and energetic translation worker is that proper names shouldn’t be translated – that is, if you’re talking about a person, their name should be left as it is in the source text. Then, slightly later in your studies, you’re informed that there are exceptions to this rule when there is a tradition of “Westernising” or other adjustments to names. And then you get into the deep weeds about proper names and things start to get a little complex.

Proper Names as Reference

Proper names of famous individuals or places often get used not directly, but as references to people and places in the source text. For example, you might describe a new President of the United States as “A modern-day Lincoln.” Lincoln here is of course a proper name, but it’s not actually referring to the person, Lincoln, but to a concept embodied by the name. The question of whether to maintain this very American reference in your translation or to localise it by referring to a president of the country you’re translating into isn’t always obvious. After all, Abraham Lincoln is very famous and represent some very specific references (civil war, slavery, emancipation, the power of the executive) that might be considered global. On the other hand, there might be a better reference for the local audience. On the other other hand, changing the reference might change what the author meant.

Proper Names are Contextual

Finally, when it comes to proper names in general, here’s the rule: There is no rule. How you handle proper names depends entirely on the audience you are writing for, the intention of the original author, and the way the name is used in the source text. In other words, you have to approach every proper name as distinct incidence and make your decisions based on what you judge to be the best way to handle it. There is simply no specific rule that governs all of the possible scenarios you’ll find yourself in.

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