Translating Proper Names

January 2nd, 2015

Proper names are no longer as reliable signifiers for sex and class as they once were, making the job of translation harder than it used to be.

Translation isn’t stored in amber or frozen in time – like the languages it works with and the world in which it functions, the art or science of translation continues to evolve and change to meet the challenges of an evolving and changing world, and the languages that world speaks. Not only are languages dying and being born every day (albeit usually so slowly most of us don’t really notice it happening, like the Moon drifting away from the earth or the tectonic plates beneath us shifting) but the way those languages are used is changing also.

This is one reason cultural knowledge is so vital in translation services. Not only do you need to be familiar with the cultures of your language pairs in order to work on the project at hand, you also need to be able to understand the way those cultures are changing every day in order to keep your translation skills fresh. Languages change slowly in a formal sense, but often very quickly “on the street” when it comes to slang and other aspects.

As a great example of the dangers of getting complacent, let’s consider proper names.

Sex Signposts

When translating something from one language into another you have to rely on cultural keys to figure out what’s going on. A largely benign example are proper names: In order to know whether the people being referred to or quoted are male or female it helps to know whether their names are traditionally male or female names. For example, when working in English you don’t need to know much beyond the name to know that someone named Michael is male and someone named Michelle is female.

However...

In modern times proper names are losing those distinctions in many ways. You have alternate spellings such as “Billie” which just as often means a woman as a man, and you have alternative formations or former nicknames ascended to the realm of proper names, like “Charlie” for a woman – where once it was a nickname for someone named Charlene or Charlotte, today it’s entirely possible for a woman to be formally named Charlie.

Dealing with Changes

In short, as language gets more casual and less formal, we’re losing some of the easy wins we once had when dealing with proper names. Not only do you have to be aware of this shift in the way language is being used on a daily basis, you have to also know how the culture well enough to be able to figure out the sex of a given name. Sometimes this will require research, or sometimes you can simply be familiar enough with a culture to guess that when it’s spelled “Billie” it’s a woman and when it’s spelled “Billy” it’s a man. Even then, you’re not guaranteed to be correct!

Change is the only constant – and as a professional part of what you’re paid for is to change along with the times.