Translating Geography

December 19th, 2012

How do you handle the translation of geographical names?

translating geography

No Rules

The first part of the problem is the chaotic nature in which almost everything in the world has been named. For thousands of years, of course, cultures and languages developed more or less in some level of isolation, and indigenous people had their own names for things. Over the centuries, empires rose up – like the Roman Empire – which then haphazardly renamed things, adopted existing names but misspelled them, adapted existing names into their own naming system, and then also influenced spelling and naming convention of the native people they’d conquered, so that even the names they left untouched often changed or evolved.

This mish-mash of naming is also complicated by the fact that spelling and grammar rules were not very organised or standardised for most of history. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon for languages to have fixed spellings and grammar. Up until a few hundred years ago, these elements of language were extremely variable, and place names around the world reflect this.

Even Fewer Rules

So, once you accept that the place names you encounter won’t necessarily follow any fixed pattern, you also have to deal with the fact that they have frequently been imported into other languages inconsistently. Some cities, for example, are freely translated into other languages – London, for example, appears variably as Londres or Londra in other languages. Some cities, however, retain their names no matter what – New York, for example is always New York, even in languages where London is Londres.

The only way to deal with geographical names is to follow a very basic guideline: The safest thing to do is to keep the name of the place from its original language, unless you know for certain what the legal translation should be or can find out definitively. This sounds easier than it is, of course, as sometimes even determining what the ‘original language’ is can be difficult. New York, for example, was once called New Amsterdam when the Dutch owned it, but no one would tell you that this is the more accurate name for that city.

Of course, some famous places are easy enough; it’s the more obscure places around the world that cause us translators to tear our hair out. When you’re faced with an obscure place name and can’t determine how it might be translated, your best bet is to leave it untranslated and keep moving, or spend some time researching it. This is why it’s good to have a vast network of friends in the translation business!

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