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40 - Proper names translation

«Ahora que voy a parar y a no contar más durante algún tiempo, me acuerdo de lo que dije hace mucho»1.

"I'm going to stop now and say no more for a while; I remember what I said long ago"2.

Another aspect that gives a text a characteristic location consists in proper names it contains, referring both to people and to objects. Apparently, personal proper name translation is not a problem because, at first glance, you would say that it is a phenomenon belonging to the past, when, for example, all the writers' names were adapted to the receiving language and culture: for example, in Italian, Carlo Dickens, Leone Tolstoi, Gustavo Flaubert, Volfango Amedeo Mozart ecc.

Actually, such a practice is still partially in use. For example, the writer Tolstoy is known, in English American culture, as "Leo", which is not the translation of the original "Lev", meaning "lion", but it is its onomastic version, i.e. it is the English proper noun deriving from the same Latin root of leo leonis.

An analogous phenomenon is noticed in the Western spelling of some names originally belonging to non-Latin alphabets. The Russian name "Dmitrij" is sometimes translated as "Demeter", sometimes it is adapted to the regional pronunciation, becoming, for example, Dmitri or Dmitry in English (for an English speaker it is difficult to pronounce two vowel sounds like "ij"). Similarly, the name "Vasilij" is easily pronounced, both in English and in Italian and in French, with an unwilling doubling of the "s", such doubling reflecting itself even in the spelling often adopted especially in non-scientific editions: Vassily or Vassili. From this point of view, the attitude is towards adaptation, comfort, despite of philological correctness.

A similar description can be made as to transliteration or transcription of Hebrew. Many common words in a non-Jewish context too have, in Latin characters, double consonants that in Hebrew do not exist. Here are some examples from an English dictionary:

current spelling spelling without consonant doubling
azzimo azimo
cabbala cabala
hanukkà hanukà
harosset haroset
hassid hasid
kippur kipur
pessah pesah
sadduceo saduceo
shabbat shabat
talled taled
yiddish yidish

But in this general pronounciation-friendly attitude, to the disadvantage of philology, there is consistency. Because in other cases there is an exaggerated philological insistence if compared to other feeble points. For example, we all know the novel Anna Karenina, but maybe not all know that the heroine's surname, in any Western language, would be "Karenin", i.e. the same as her husband's. In French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, where surnames are not declined by gender, the novel's title, if inspired to the same acceptability - and not adequacy - criteria could easily be Anna Karenin.

Although it is a descriptive, not prescriptive, science, translation science dictates, however, inner consistency in translation choices throughout a text (or in a series of texts). It would, therefore, be desirable to stick to one or another trend.

Let us examine proper object nouns. This category is often actualized in:

names of agencies

names of cinemas, theaters

names of streets

With the exception of international agencies having a multilingual name (for example Unione Europea, Union Européenne, European Union, Europäische Union ecc.), the translation of the proper name of an agency can create confusion. For example, translating names of the universities containing a place name (University of California, Washington University, Università degli Studi di Milano, Moskovskij gosudarstvennyj universitet) can be dangerous because in some cases the place name refers to the place where the university has its basis, in other cases it is simply an appellation. For example, translating "Milan University" would create confusion, because in Milan there are more than ten universities that, if translated, could more or less fit in this English translation. The same can be said for the University of California, that, if literally translated, would give the (wrong) idea that in California there is just one university. Translating «Washington University» as «Università di Washington» would be simply a mistake: this university is not in either Washington state nor in Washington, D.C., but rather in Missouri.

There are, then, particular cases in which a translation would really be ridiculous. Since some names have a meaning beyond their meaning as proper names, the paradox could be realized in which the Milan "Università Bocconi", that bears the surname of its founder, could be translated as "Bite University" or "Mouthful University", since "boccone" in Italian means "bite" or "mouthful". That is what happened during the English translation of the Italian ministers' biographies when they were put in office in 2001, in the Italian government official site.

An important aspect concerning realia in general and proper names in particular, which is valid for all translators of all linguistic combinations, is as follows: when coming across an element of realia or a proper name, the first question to be asked is from what culture, in what language it originates. Once this is settled, the choice is between:

  1. transliterating or transcribing the original spelling
  2. translating or adapting the original spelling
  3. what is not permissible is:

  4. *transcription or adaptation of non-original spelling belonging to the language/culture in which the text is incidentally written.

As an example of this third, undesirable option, I take Martin Cruz Smith's novel Gorky Park, published in Italian with the same English title in Pier Francesco Paolini's translation (who, presumably, didn't have a major role in deciding about the title, because usually such task belongs to the marketing office of a publisher).

The U.S. novel is set in an amusement park in Moscow, that in Russian is called «Park imeni Gor´kogo». Therefore, Martin Cruz Smith legitimately decided to give it the English version of the name, translating the Russian denomination: Gorky Park.

The Italian publisher had the opportunity to:

  1. transliterating or transcribing the original spelling («Park imeni Gor´kogo»)
  2. translating or adapting the original spelling («Parco Gor´kij»

and instead opted for what I consider the unallowable option:

  • *transcribing or adapting the non original spelling belonging to the language/culture in which the text is incidentally written: so the text was translated as "Gorky Park", as if in New York or in another U.S. town there were a park entitled to the Russian writer.

In this way an evident false is created, if not from the literary point of view, from the literary setting point of view. The readers are given the illusion that somewhere in the world there is a "Gorky Park" [in English] or, maybe, that the thriller is not set in Russia.

The French publisher has made a still more complex false: in France the novel is known as Gorki Parc i.e. preserving the English construction in which the first name is a modifier of the second, but translating "Park" as "Parc", therefore creating a hybrid in which:

construction is English

the assumed language is French

the proper name is originally Russian (imagine that!)

Danish have called it «Gorkij Park» adapting the Russian writer's name spelling, but leaving the illusion that the park bear this name (in Danish or Russian).

The Finnish publisher has made a thoroughly legitimate choice by publishing it as Gorkin puisto, i.e. translating the title in Finnish.


The third 40-unit section of this course ends here, but the topics foreseen for the third part are not completely covered. The many topics to be dealt with as far as production of translated text is concerned will be explained in the fourth section, the next 40 units.


Bibliographical references

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

1 Marías 2000, p. 419.
2 Marías 2001, p. 336.