There are two rules to follow when translating country names.
Place Names in Belgium
A great example of this is Belgium, a country most people think of rarely, and when they do they often assume it has a specific and country-wide culture and language, which could not be further from the truth. Like many European nations, Belgium is formed from a variety of ancient regions often pushed together under one central authority through force or treaty.
In Belgium, you have three main groups: The Flemish of the north, centred on Flanders and speaking Flemish (often referred to as Dutch); the people of Brussels in the middle, who once spoke Flemish but have been shifting towards French over the last two centuries; and the Wallons of the south who speak French. Belgium was part of The Netherlands until 1830, when it secured its independence.
With so many languages enjoying a thriving existence in Belgium, it’s no wonder that creating high quality translating of place names can be a real challenge! This sort of thing is more common than you might think, especially if you’re unfamiliar with other cultures. Inside a culture, of course, there are accepted conventions everyone uses when naming a famous place. But when you’re translating you need to know if there’s a standard way that the target language refers to locations.
Basic Approaches to the Problem
There are two basic approaches for these situations:
1. Sometimes there is a standard. Especially when translating into English, because of that language’s global dominance, there is frequently a standard and generally-accepted translation. For a Belgian example, the city of Antwerpen or Anvers is always translated as Antwerp in English, despite the existence of two native names for the city.
2. If no standard exists, leave the name alone. Sometimes a city or region is simply not well-known enough to have a standard global translation, so it’s best in those situations to simply bring the name over intact in its original language. Thus, Leuven, a Flemish city in Belgium, remains Leuven when translated into a new language.
Of course, as with all attempts to tame language there are as many loopholes and exceptions to these guidelines as there are words in a language, so much of this comes down to experience and judgement. I wouldn’t have it any other way!