Last year I had a brief entry ON TRANSLATING NAMES (whose comment section degenerated lamentably and had to be closed); it’s a subject that’s long interested me, and I’m glad to report that there’s a detailed discussion of it in a pair of articles (Part 1, Part 2) by Verónica Albin (a freelance medical translator and Lecturer in Spanish at the Center for the Study of Languages at Rice University). I’ll quote a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:

Take the list of medieval European queens that another friend of mine compiled. The most popular names were Eleanor, Anne, Mary, and Elizabeth. The problem, he pointed out, was that these names changed according to what language you read them in. Thus a French queen named Aliénor first had to be distinguished from all the other French queens, past and present, who shared that name—and that was usually done by appending her provenance: Aliénor d’Aquitaine, for example. Yet in Spanish she would be known as Leonor de Aquitania, and in English as Eleanor of Aquitaine. To make matters worse, when she married Henry Plantagenet, she was then known as Eleanor of England—making it really hard for future generations to know that that Eleanor was not English, but French. If we take into consideration the fact that medieval queens, due largely to the perils of childbirth, rarely made it past their early twenties, and their husbands—who were likely named Henry, William, or Charles—remarried other Eleanors, Annes, Marys, and Elizabeths, we end up with a royal mess…
The use of articles is often thorny. We say the United States and the Netherlands in English; In Spanish, la Argentina (or, simply, Argentina) and El Uruguay (or Uruguay), but Chile never takes an article in Spanish; in Portuguese we say o Brasil and a Bolívia, but not o (or a) Portugal. Yet, for El Salvador, the article is always preserved in English as in Spanish. When Spanish-speakers travel, we keep the article for some countries, but not for others: al Japón, al Paraguay, al Senegal, but a México, a Portugal, a Chipre. There are no rules, just conventions. Ukrainians insist that their country be referred to in English as Ukraine, rather than the Ukraine, as a sign of their independence from Russia. It is worth noting that neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian language has a definite article. On the other hand, cities like la Habana, den Haag, o Rio de Janeiro, which have an article in their original names, may not have it when translated into another language…
The gender of cities can be more problematic. I remember seeing a sign in the French Riviera that read Le vieux Nice. As a Spanish-speaker who minored in Italian, I had always thought of Nice as feminine, especially since the Italian name of the city, Garibaldi’s Nizza, is clearly feminine. In French, however, it is, at first glance, masculine. It was not until I checked in Le Petit Robert des noms propres that I realized it was deceptive, as the masculine adjective vieux modifies the implied quartier, not the city. It would seem that Nice is also feminine in French. I say ‘seem’ because according to Hanse-Blampain, Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne, in spite of the cited entry in Robert, there is no rule when it comes to the gender of cities. Under Genre des noms propres de villes, item 2, it states that authors often contradict themselves in a single article, but that the masculine seems to take precedence. It further adds that even amongst the best French writers one may find with equal frequency Rome est bâti and Rome est bâtie; Lyon est occupé and Lyon est occupée. It also states that when one refers not to the toponym, but to its inhabitants, the masculine is preferred, especially when used with tout: Tout Genève s’intéresse au débat; le Tout-Paris.

I noticed one mistake: “Texas also has Bexar County, a phonetic adaptation of the Spanish last name ‘Béjar.’” Bexar isn’t “a phonetic adaptation,” it’s the old Spanish spelling, with x for what is now written j (the same phenomenon is preserved in the name Mexico); if it were written phonetically, it would be Bear, because that’s how Texans pronounce it.
I also take note of the following odd remark: “More than 20 years after the decree [mandating the use of pinyin for Chinese] no one calls Zhongguo by any other name than China…” Has anyone, even the Chinese government, seriously suggested we call the country Zhongguo in English? I certainly hope not.
(Via—who else?—aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


  1. The original source is the online Translation Journal. http://accurapid.com/journal/

  2. > I noticed one mistake…
    I suspect the author has evidence, or at least a gut feeling, that Bejar became Bexar when Tejas became Texas (the means of which we need not discuss). It is not at all the same thing as Spaniards hearing the native name as “Mesheeca”, writing that as Mexica, and then calling the place they conquered Mexico (with the “sh” sound replaced by the “j” sound). To my knowledge, Mexico has been spelled with an x since the Conquest era. And even now in Spanish it’s Tejas and Mexico.
    > it would be Bear, because that’s how Texans pronounce it
    No, we don’t. Bejar and Bear are different, as are Bexar and Bear, as are BJ and the Bear =).

  3. The paragraph about pinyin in the second article is a bit puzzling, indeed. I would even tend to consider that it could confuse anyone unfamiliar with Chinese:
    - Tung-mei is an obvious typo for “Tung-pei”. This is Wade, not pinyin (would be “Dongbei”), and, literally meaning “[the] North-East”, is the most common denomination for the vast area formed by the three provinces of (from S to N) Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. The traditional Western name for this area is of course “Manchuria” (“Mandchourie”, etc.), but “Manchuria” itself refers to another Chinese name, Manzhou. Neutral “Dongbei” and old-fashioned “Manzhou” have different connotations, which are lost if you translate both as “Manchuria”.
    - “Canton” is no more the Wade transcription for Guangzhou than “Londino” (Λονδίνο) is the Greek transcription for London. Wade for Guangzhou is “Kuang-chou”. “Canton” is still the official term used in France (as in Consulat général de France à Canton). This has nothing to do with Wade or, for that matter, EFEO, which Albin does not mention, although it has been (still is, by a few “old-shool” sinologists I know) more widely used in France than Wade (EFEO for Canton is “Kouang-Tcheou”).
    -Footnote 16: “L’Atlas géopolitique & culturel du Petit Robert des noms propres (…) has kept the Wade-Giles system (e.g. Shanghai, Tianjin, Canton) with an occasional adaptation (e.g. Pékin).”
    No need to discuss “Canton” again (another “occasional adaptation”, and certainly not a transcription), but Shanghai and Tianjin are the proper pinyin equivalents of Wade Shang-hai and T’ien-chin (which would be, in pre-Eighties French writing, Shanghaï and Tientsin).
    To summarize, “should we write ‘Formosa’ or ‘Taiwan’?” and “should we write ‘Taiwan or ‘T’ai-wan’?” are two problems that should be more clearly distinguished.

  4. (Also, is it too excessive to state that talking about a “transliteration” of Chinese, or any non-alphabetic language, is a contradiction in terms?)

  5. agm: OK, how do you pronounce Bexar (County)? You’re not going to tell me you pronounce the x, I hope. I may not be a Texan, but I know Texans…
    Jimmy: You’re quite right, of course, on all counts, but since she’s a Spanish translator swotting up her Chinese material from who knows where, I didn’t take her to task. One can’t know everything (though one tries, one tries).

  6. I did not mean to be harsh on an erudite and thought-stimulating article.
    It is, in itself, very positive that Albin felt the necessity to include a non-Roman language in her examples.
    I certainly don’t want to imply that her lack of knowledge of Chinese and the mistakes it produced necessarily invalidate her views regarding the languages she really masters, but what scares me is the idea that I could be as easily induced in error if she were talking about Tamazight or Quechua, two languages I (still) ignore completely.
    That is something I always expect, as by default, from journalistic writings, but I tend to have higher exigences with language professionals.
    If I reacted a bit vividly, it may be because people are still too often given a free pass when talking about Chinese, while similar statements on more familiar languages would never go unchallenged. There was a time when the only mention of China in a “serious” debate was met with laughs. Things have change (merci, Etiemble) and that is good, but we have to move forward and not stay at the level of complimenting people for their “excellent Chinese” just because they can say “ni hao” and “xiexie”, when the likes of Mark Rowswell/Dashan are not an exception anymore.

  7. Things have changed. Sorry.

  8. The degeneration of the original comment thread was hilarious to outside observers. Is Karl the same name as Carl?
    I want to say that I have a nominalist approach to names, though somehow that doesn’t catch it. I recently insisted on calling Avril Lavigne “April Lavigne”, though it is true that I was trying to annoy someone. (Why didn’t I call her “April The Vine”? Because I didn’t think that there would be any value-added in that, annoyance-wise).

  9. This kind of thread degeneration has happened before on languagehat, I seem to recall a whole bunch of people wanting to know if their surnames were Jewish. Once a question like this gets into Google it can become self-reinforcing. Matt Haughey posted a couple of other examples: Dear Maury and Dear Overhaulin

  10. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the “Am I Jewish??” thread. The degeneration is hilarious to me, too, but eventually I decide enough is enough (or, if you prefer, genug iz shoyn genug).

  11. Zizka, I have “personal aroma” approach to names. Thus, Carl (papa Carlo – pleasant smell of fresh-cut wood) is very different from Karl (Marx, smells of blood).

  12. Where I grew up there were several Carls and one Karl. It might have been a question of assimilation, since Karl would have been the ancestral name in all cases.

  13. Damn, I didn’t remember that earlier thread. That has got to be one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. What did your logs look like? Was it one site funneling you all that traffic? Was there any indication of an outside source recommending people come here to find out if they were Jewish? Did you get any email in the same lines? I’m interested in whether these people were hoping they were of Jewish ancestry or hoping they weren’t.
    I once dated an American girl of German ancestry with a German last name who moved to LA. She couldn’t convince the Jews in the entertainment business she wasn’t Jewish.

  14. No, it wasn’t one site; I think they were just people who googled “Jewish names” and got to LH and were too clueless to figure out it wasn’t what they were looking for. I’d like to add that commonbeauty’s smackdown in the name-translation thread (“Is Language Hat your daddy?”) is one of my favorite comments ever.

  15. Actually, now you mention it, is Marks *always* a Jewish name? I have no Jewish relations but I wonder if before 1914 the name was changed.
    (You don’t need to answer this, of course!)

  16. Be careful what you wish for. Yep, in the rare occasion Bexar County might be relevant to a conversation in English, you pronounce the x. Think Becks-are (or maybe Becks and some sort of schwa-r combination). In Spanish, I was thinking of the fact that Bear would be something like Be-yar while Bejar would be something like Be-har (again, apologies for trying to describe sound without knowing IPA). And continuing the threadjacking, bear also becomes oso.

  17. Although, in all fairness I will point out that Texas is so damn big that I have noticed differenceds in the Spanish and the Mexicans since moving from one side of the state to the other (not to mention that there are actually white people on this side of the state). That might contribute something.

  18. If the Jewish-name meltdown ever starts happening again, I recommend the following response: answer all such queries with confident, authoritative affirmatives. “Yes, Mr. Simons, you are definitely Jewish.” “Sra. Rodriguez, scholars agree that all the Rodriguez descend from Jewish ancestors.” “Ms. MacConnell, your surname is unmistakeably Jewish. Start studying your Yiddish. Mazal Tov.”

  19. agm: I just asked my Texan officemate, and he scoffed loudly at your suggested pronunciation and said “He ain’t no Texan.” He pronounces it Bear. Pffthbthth! (You might also look it up in Webster’s Geographical Dictionary, which gives only the “bear” pronunciation.)
    ACW: Excellent idea!

  20. Regarding the Jewish family names thread, I knew a boy at school whose surname was Sacerdoti, derived, as our Latin teacher once explained, from sacerdos, priest. I imagine that it must be the Italian version of Cohen.

  21. OK then, why is “Wolf” a common Jewish name? My theory is that it is a relic of the barbarian Khazars.
    And that’s my theory, which is mine, of the origins of the name “Wolf”.
    Ahem. My second theory. My second theory, which is mine, is about the Finns. I will now proceed to tell you my theory about the Finns. My theory is that the Finns are Dravidians who were separated from the main group during their migration from Japan. That is my theory, which is mine, of the Finns.

  22. A careful examination of the Phaistos Disk such as I have been pursuing for the last fifteen years will clearly show the puerility and sycophancy of your hypothesis, esteemed colleague.

  23. And that’s my theory, which is mine, of the origins of the name “Wolf”.
    More to the point, Ziska, why are there so few Jews named “Elk”? You can’t blame the Khazars for that.
    Actually, isn’t “Wolf” and it’s variants a pretty common name everywhere in the world wolves are/were? Randall, Wolfram, Villa-Lobos, etc.? (Now I’m curious about Lopez, Lupe–anyone know of a good online name dictionary? And that’s just European forms: What’s the Sanskrit root form of “wolf”? Siouan?)

  24. Zizka, the world famous geneticist Svante Pääbo believes that the Finns originated in Western Europe, moved to the north, and acquired their language on contacting the Sami. He has recevied much praise and a honorary doctorate (he was the one who first discovered fossile DNA), as well as hate letters from Finnish patriots. I just had to tell you, because when rummaging through my newspaper clippings earlier today, I found that one, dating from 10 July 1999.
    HP, one Sanskrit word for wolf is vrka-, with a vowel r; PIE *wlkwos, vowel l and kw for labialised k. While I’m at it: Chinese láng.

  25. And Volkov is a good Russian name.

  26. Reminds me of a post by J. Cassian the Bloggerfeller on transliterating/translating names. And a tiny piece of my own.

  27. joe tomei says:

    LH, that blog post title is asking for trouble. I’m thinking that some like Translating N**mes might prevent it.
    It reminds me of a Gary Larson knockoff cartoon. It has the deer with a target on it’s stomach (to which a companion says ‘bummer of a birthmark, dude’) saying the a second deer with the question ‘ask me any tech question you want!’ and the first deer says ‘I thought my birthmark was bad…’
    For wolf, Japanese is ookami, ? on-yomi is rou.
    Drifting off topic, There’s a famous manga>movie>TV series called Lone Wolf and Cub about Ogami Itto and his son, who he pushes around in a baby cart. One of the movies had the translated title of Perambulator against the Winds of Death.

  28. Alexei: Thanks for the Bloggerfeller link, from which I discovered this great coin-and-commentary site.
    joe: heh!

  29. Since I heard you calling my name I thought I’d drop in and say hi. Thanks, guys, for not eating me up alive with the comments on Chinese. If I had only known you, Jimmy, I would have clung to your pants when writing the piece. Yes, I wanted to include a non Western language and I relied mostly on US gov pages. Sorry for the booboos. Still, I don’t regret that I did include it.
    More than anything, I’m glad to read that you had fun with the articles. It means the world to me.
    If you want to laugh a little, look for an article I just finished in the next issue (October)of the Translation Journal http://www.accurapid.com/journal entitled “For the Benefit and Helpe of Ladies and Gentlewomen: A Translator’s Historical Review of Dictionaries and Their Eccentricities.
    Take care and thanks for your kind words!

  30. Verónica Albin says:

    I forgot to add that there is a third article on proper names in the Translation Journal “Navigating through Treacherous Waters: The Translation of Geographical Names” by Gilberto Castañeda-Hernández, Ph.D. http://www.accurapid.com/journal/28names.htm
    And there is a fourth one coming out in the October issue of the TJ on the toponyms and proper adjectives of the states of the US and their capitals that I co-authored with Alberto Gómez Font– head philologist of the Manual de Español Urgente of the Agencia Efe in Madrid. This last one, however, will be in Spanish.
    Waiting to hear what you think of these.

  31. Vero: I’m looking forward to it — thanks for dropping by!

  32. Verónica Albin says:

    AGM said:
    “I suspect the author has evidence, or at least a gut feeling, that Bejar became Bexar when Tejas became Texas (the means of which we need not discuss). It is not at all the same thing as Spaniards hearing the native name as “Mesheeca”, writing that as Mexica, and then calling the place they conquered Mexico (with the “sh” sound replaced by the “j” sound). To my knowledge, Mexico has been spelled with an x since the Conquest era. And even now in Spanish it’s Tejas and Mexico.”
    There is a wonderful article on the ‘x’ and ‘j’ in Mexico written by Mónica Eduvijes de León in Apuntes (at that time the journal of the Spanish Language Interest Group of the New York Circle of Translators) and now an independent publication by InTradEs. In that same issue there is a rebuttal by Joaquín (Jack) Segura who is a Spaniard and a member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española. I won’t go into details here, but that rebuttal sparked a war between Mexican and Peninsular translators.
    When Alberto Gómez Font and I were writing the article on US toponyms and proper adjectives (forthcoming in the October TJ) we had a long talk about spelling Texas with a ‘j’ in Spanish. Here, in the US, the spelling with a ‘j’ is used mainly to denote ‘ethinic pride.’ As such, we have tejana music, tejano art, etc. However, when speaking about geographical terms, the convention is to keep the ‘x’ in Spanish. Gómez Font, as a Spaniard living in Madrid, was not aware of this distinction. In the end, we decided to admit both spellings, but, as you will see when the article comes out, we used bold for the spelling with ‘x’ as it is the spelling recommended by the Real Academia Española for México, Texas, Oaxaca, and so forth.It is also the prefered spelling in the Libro de Estilo of El País and in the Manual de Español Urgente.
    As far as whether or not the spelling of the Texan Bexar is a phonetic adaptation or not, we could argue until the cows come home :)
    Thanks for a bunch of very interesting exchanges.

  33. As Spinoza said, more or less, what we perceive as “long time” is an illusion of our limited minds who are unable comprehend the whole notion of eternity.
    That said, I would like to tell you, Veronica (hoping you will read this), that I am glad you accepted my criticism so kindly. As I said, I learned a lot from the other parts of the article(s). I wish such respectful and constructive debate were more common in offline academic life. You are setting a model that makes me more optimistic about the science that can be made. Thank you for that.

  34. Please, will someone help me. It’s for my girlfriend… I can’t find the translation of het name ”NATASJA” anywhere…
    Please help me?

  35. [Misinformation deleted -- thanks, Alexei!]

  36. Wait a moment, LH, it’s “Natasja” not “Nastasja.”

  37. D’oh!! Damn, my househunting has seriously impacted my reading/thinking skills. I take that back, Alex, Natasja=Natasha is a nickname for Natalia, a late Latin name derived from natalis (dies) ‘birthday,’ in this case Christ’s birthday (Christmas). It’s ultimately the same name as Noel(le), a French derivative of the same Latin word.
    Thanks for the backup, Alexei!

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