Baldur asks a good question: what should a translator do about personal names that bear a meaning in the original language? I reached his entry via Dorothea, who says:

It’s a wicked translation problem. Translate the names by meaning, and you make the original sound like a bigoted nineteenth-century impression of Native Americans. Worse, you give the names’ meaning too much prominence in the reader’s mind; as Baldur says, these names are names first and meanings second….
The opposite danger, though, is considering meanings—well, meaningless. If you don’t translate the name, how do you get across its echoes?
One possibility is the name-pair, the name in the original language paired with a translation…. The downside is that this is slightly misleading; it’s easy for the reader to believe that the translation is part of the name in the original…. (In an electronic edition, I would be tempted to include the translated name as a pop-up note or in a lighter text color. The latter might be possible in print also; depends on the publisher.)…
If all else fails, there’s always the footnote. In this specific case, though, I myself would prefer an annotated name glossary; it’s a darned shame to have to hunt through the entire book for the first instance of a name just to find out what it means.

Obviously, each case is different and has to be addressed on its own merits, but I wonder if readers have general thoughts on the subject? For me, this is a case where the internet has obvious benefits: a scrollover note on the name’s meaning would be unobtrusive in a way that can’t be matched in print. (Personally, there are few things I love better than an annotated glossary, but I recognize that it’s a love not shared by the majority.)


  1. Good question. I believe that it depends on the entire texture of the text. For example, translating names and wordplays is a most certainly a requirement in books for children, in other cases I’d say it depends on the overall result. Sometimes an exact transliteration has a funny sound, “breaking” the entire text, sometimes there is a tasteful translation. In general, translations may function better in playful texts, exact (or slighly modified) transliterations go well with “serious” literature.

  2. Fascinating question. I remember running into this problem as a kid when I first read Watership Down and being struck by the difference between “Bigwig” and “Thayli” (probably not spelling the rabbit correctly). It wasn’t consistent: you had rabbits like Holly and Bluebell, but Hyzenthlay “Shine-Dew-Fur” remained Hyzenthlay. I think Watership Down had both footnotes with the meaning of the name, if Adams didn’t use the translated version of the name in the novel, and annotated names in the glossary. I would have to admit that my preference would be for the original name to be used throughout the text with the footnote/glossary option, but I was corrupted into pedantry by graduate school.

  3. Something that I’ve been pondering since Dorothea posted this entry is the Bible. Translators have historically always transliterated (or more accurated transposed to more familiar equivalents) proper names, even when a word play is used, e.g. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.

    Note however the exception of Peter, whose Aramaic name (something like qepha’ but I don’t have a lexicon handy to check) is given as Cephas in the NT. Of course this name means “stone” and since Jesus makes a pun on this (…thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…) he is usually known by his Greek name Petros.

    Of course the pun no longer works in English, but it does in the Romance languages, which have preserved PETRAM. This is particularly interesting because I doubt this Greek borrowing would have supplanted the native words for stone (e.g. saxum, lapis) if not for this Biblical wordplay… so here’s an instance where the decision on how to translate a name may have changed the course of a language!

  4. The Greek word was borrowed into Latin at a very early date, and I suspect it was becoming the popular word before Christianity took hold, but I don’t have enough material on the history of Latin on hand to say for sure.

  5. Grrr, I should know better than to make statements like this, as someone invariably calls me on them.

    As far as the OLD and LSJ are concerned, saxum and lapis (to say nothing of common derivatives like lapillus) are very common words, whereas petra is pretty rare (the entry in the LSJ even goes so far as to say “pure Lat. saxum”.) You are right that petra could have become the popular word long before it becomes common in literature (it is afterall attested as far back as Plautus) but I still suspect Biblical influence here.

  6. The pun is iffy in Spanish: Pedro/piedra. I daresay some people still get it. I suspect Catalan is even worse, but I need my dictionary to be sure of that.

  7. Absolutely hate it when done in Chinese. “Bright Pearl” as a name sounds so bombastic. I’d much rather read the pinyin-ized version.

  8. Where the name has an obvious meaning for the native speaker, apart from it being a name, I think the translator ought to render it into the source language. For instance, “Sobakevitch” (“Dogson”), “Korobochka” (“Littlebox”), etc. in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Footnotes just don’t render how funny these names are in context, and I’ve certainly never met any Sobakevitches in Russia. Likewise with Bulgakov’s “Bezdomny” (“Homeless”) in Master and Margarita.

  9. As one who studies Eytmologies, I don’t think a person (well, at least not in our culture) considers the “meaning” of the name when you see the name. Perhaps it is important in literature, but to translate the name would take all the fun out of it then.

    My name is Michael, do you know it’s mean? What is the meaning of John? Johnson? Elizabeth? How often do you wonder about such things?

  10. Mike: That’s true for English, and most European languages, but that’s an unusual situation (from a worldwide perspective): we borrow most of our names from dead languages (for cultural, originally religious, reasons), and therefore they don’t have meaning for us. Michael, for instance, is ultimately from Hebrew, where it meant ‘who is like God?’; for the ancient Hebrews, it was transparent, but for the Greeks and all the other latecomers who borrowed it as part of the package of Christianity it was, and is, opaque. But in most parts of the world, names have clear meanings (in China or Japan, for example, all you have to do is look at the characters and you know what the name means), and names are given based on those meanings, not just because the name sounds nice or was borne by a favorite uncle. Thus the question: how do you deal with such names? There’s no problem when the names are just collections of sounds (you either use the local equivalent, eg, Miguel or Mihai for Michael, or render it phonetically), but when they have clear meanings for the author and the native reader it seems a pity to ignore those meanings in a translation.

  11. i want to know what KElly is in Hawaii’n language. the spelling, way to say it, and its meaning. plez help me out

  12. Since Kelly is not a Hawaiian name (it’s from an Irish surname), the best you can do is spell it as if it were Hawaiian: Keli. But I think even Hawaiians are used to “Kelly.”

  13. I am trying to find out what my name would be if translated into latin. I know James is Spanish of Jacob, and I (think) I can across Jacomus as the latin “version”. Any idea’s on resources?

  14. Iacomus is a Late Latin variant of Iacobus, the Latin form of NT Greek Iakobos, the equivalent of Hebrew Yaakov. You can either use the “correct” Latin Iacobus (or Jacobus if you prefer), or the variant Iacomus, which is closer to your English name (and in fact its source).
    Note that, while James and Jacob are considered different names in English, they’re historically the same, and in French (for example) they’re both Jacques.

  15. i was wondering is there any other language i can have this name translated into please thank-you.

  16. Italian Giacomo, Catalan Jaume, Galician Xaime, Irish Seamas or Seamus (pronounced Shaymus), Scottish Seumas (anglicized as Hamish), plus all the “Jacob” forms (Russian Yakov &c).

  17. Can you please tell me what the name Colleen loks like in hebrew or hindu

  18. kayla jade leech says

    can you translate my name to japan writng please
    my name is kayla jade leech

  19. kayla jade leech says

    can you translate my name to japan writng please
    my name is kayla jade leech

  20. can you please translate the name CERI into chinese please, i have had no luck in finding it any where else. thank you

  21. Can you send me a hundred dollars please? Can you get me into the next Evgeny Kissin concert please? Can you sew me a language hat please? Can you please please me please?
    Is Language Hat your daddy? Back off. Now!
    Names in non-“Western” languages: it’s rather hard to come up with a Yoruba name that doesn’t have a clear (and usually obvious) meaning to the speaker of Yoruba. In fact, it used to cause us great hilarity, when I was growing up, that white folks apparently went around the world bearing meaningless names. Or meaningful names that no one (except linguists) knew the meanings of. That a person could be called “Stone” (as was one of the authors of my high school biology text) occasioned in my mates many an incident of belly-hurting mirth. Why be a “Stone”? You could be “Royalty befits me”, “Honour has met me at home”, “I desire the crown”, “My wealth has been doubled” (just to transliterate my name and that of my three siblings.) Worthy names indeed for the journey of life.
    “Developed” nations, pah.

  22. Yeah, guys and gals, this is really not a name translation service. If you want your name translated into Language X, make a friend who speaks that language, or place your request on a newsgroup devoted to that language.
    (My name means ‘crown’ or ‘wreath,’ which I think is rather nice.)

  23. Kayla Maureen Wright says

    looking for the root meanings of my names in all different languages and family histories.. can u help??

  24. vasilionsj says

    I recently began corresponding with an elderly frenchman. My wife, Laura, wrote him a couple questions. His response was addressed to “Diana.” Is Diana a french equivalent for Laura (as Etienne is for Steve) or did he simply make an error?
    Thank you.

  25. No, he simply made an error.

  26. Kayla Jade Leech: now there’s a meaningful name for you, given the context!

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