Translating Proper Names

December 25th, 2012

When is a name not a name?

translating proper names

I did eventually learn Spanish quite well, but not in that class. On the first day, our teacher asked us each our name and then assigned us the ‘Spanish version’ of our name. For example, one kid in class was named Jeffrey, and the teacher told him that in class he would be called Gofredo. This is not exactly incorrect – Gofredo is, in fact, a Spanish variant of Jeffrey – but it was pretty ridiculous to call everyone something other than their actual name.

Things Not to Do

Spanish translation (or French translation or German translation for that matter), like almost every discipline out there, has a lengthy list of rules that many folks like to recite at the drop of a hat. One of these rules you’ll hear a lot if that you do not ever translate proper names. On the one hand this makes sense: In the words of T.S. Eliot your name is your ‘Deep and inscrutable singular Name’ and should not be messed with. When I travel I do not change my name to fit in with a different culture! And as a translator I don’t change people’s names willy-nilly to suit some strange sense of order.

Aside from being rude, it’s also confusing, because you’ll be introducing a variable that will be inconsistent. If I choose to translate, for example, President Barack Obama’s name (and good luck with that little project!) who’s to say the next translator will translate it in a similar manner? You could easily end up with several versions of the name in different translations, confusing everyone. Consider, for example, the endless controversy concerning how to spell Muammar Gaddafi’s name.

All Rules Have Exceptions

But, like any ‘rule’ a good translator knows when to break it. Generally I think this rule applies to modern names, when records have been kept pretty strictly and differentiating people with similar names is not too difficult. For historical pieces, however, I think sometimes it makes sense to translate proper names.

For one thing, often history remembers a translated version of a name. History is filled up with a disproportionate number of kings and queens and such, as most regular folks didn’t have the means to claw their way into the history books the way they do nowadays. Royal families interbred and shared names all the time, and often a Spanish Queen became an English Queen and is remembered by her Anglicised name, or similar situations. In such moments it makes the most sense to keep the translated name, and not try to be fancy about it.

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