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.)