Volume 11, No. 1 
January 2007

  Heikki Särkkä

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Index 1997-2007
TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
On Becoming a Court Interpreter
by Albert G. Bork

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
It could happen to you!
by Natasha Curtis
Translation Company Owners — Does Your Business Own You?
by Huiping Iler
On the Matter of Discounts
by Danilo & Vera Nogueira
Ten Ways to Make Sure You Get a Really Bad Translation
by M.L. Seren-Rosso

  In Memoriam
Catarina Tereza Feldmann, 1944 - 2006
by Regina Alfarano

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Proper Names in Non-fiction Texts
by Heikki Särkkä

  Book Review
Translating Poet-Translators: Norman R. Shapiro Meets Marot, du Bellay, and Ronsard
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
Thinking German Translation
by Gertrud Champe

  Translation Theory
Domesticating the Theorists: A Plea for Plain Language
by María Teresa Sánchez
The Role of Bilingualism in Translation Activity
by Burce Kaya

  Translators Education
Meeting Students’ Expectations in Undergraduate Translation Programs
by Séverine Hubscher-Davidson

  Translators' Tools
The Impact of Translation Memory Tools on the Translation Profession
by Ahmed Saleh Elimam
Machine Translation Revisited
by Jost Zetzsche
Exploring Translation Corpora with MkAlign
by Serge Fleury and Maria Zimina
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  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
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  Translation Journal

Nuts & Bolts


Translation of Proper Names in Non-fiction Texts

by Heikki Särkkä



The present article deals with the translation of proper names in non-fiction texts. Starting with the delimitation of the category of proper names on a linguistic basis, it examines the various strategies of translating proper names. The effect of the communicative situation is an important factor in the choice of the appropriate translation strategy. Situational features of interest here include the purpose of the translation, the expected audience, the mutual distance of the source and target cultures, as well as the closeness or lack of it of the languages involved. After a formal categorization of name types on syntactic grounds, names are differentiated on the basis of their respective referents and the associated translation strategies are discussed.

1. Introduction

   basic tenet in translation theory taught to first-year students is that what is translated are texts, not words. In the following, a more apt designation for translation of proper names would be handling of proper names in translated texts. In deference to traditional usage, however, the term 'translation' was retained in the title. More exactly, the present article deals with proper names in non-fiction texts. Left outside the discussion here are not only fictional names but also idiomatic cases of the type to carry coals to Newcastle, which, although occurring in non-fiction texts, are stylistically marked and not central to the theme of this article.

Basically, nouns are classified as common or proper. Common nouns refer to a class of entities (e.g. squirrel), while proper nouns have a unique referent (John, London).

Grammatically, proper nouns behave very much in the same way in the sentence as common nouns. There are, however, well-known co-occurrence restrictions that distinguish them from common nouns. The most important among them are:

  1. Proper nouns (PN) do not accept demonstrative pronouns as determiners. One would not normally say this John just bought a car. However, supposing there are several Johns out of whom you wish to single out a particular one, you are already using John as a common noun meaning 'any person called John.'
  2. PNs do not accept restrictive adjectives or restrictive relative clauses. In the sentence the Old Shakespeare felt the closeness of his death one is implicitly comparing one of several manifestations in time of the person called Shakespeare with the rest, therefore, one is using the word as a common noun in the grammatical sense. The same applies to sentences such as she is no longer the Eve she used to be. One may deny this only at the price of more or less ad hoc explanations about the character of the noun in question. Another way of putting this would be to say that we have to do with two homonymous words John or Shakespeare respectively, one of which is a proper noun, the other a common noun. When in a given speech situation we have a unique reference, we are dealing with a proper noun, otherwise with a common noun.
  3. Opposition between definite and indefinite is neutralized in PNs (a given PN either invariably takes zero article as in John, London, or invariably takes the definite article as in the Strand, the Haymarket, the Queen Elizabeth). A seeming counterexample such as that is not the John I was talking about is an instance of John being used as a common noun as seen above. In other words, a noun's status as either common or proper is ultimately determined by situational factors. If in a given speech situation, there is a possibility of what looks like a proper noun having multiple referents (this John, two Johns) we have to do with a common noun homonymous with a proper noun.

All of the above features derive directly from the fact that PNs refer to unique referents. In Randolph was a true Churchill the surname is being used in the sense 'a member of the Churchill family', that is, as a common noun.

Whether a given noun is common or proper is not always easy to decide. There are borderline cases that could be classified either way. Also, a given noun may change category depending on how it is used. For instance, a common noun referring to a given landscape feature may turn into a proper noun with a unique referent. Examples include names such as Saari 'island', Kymi 'large river' etc.

Personal proper names used metaphorically may turn into common names: He thinks he is a Napoleon. On the other hand, surnames such as Smith, Fletcher and Seppä 'smith' have their origin in the trade of the first bearer or rather that of the father of the first bearer.

On structural grounds one can distinguish between three types of PNs. The first are what I shall call central proper nouns (CPN), i.e. names that are not further analyzable in terms of internal syntactic structure: Charles, Attila, (Lake) Ladoga, (the) Amazon, London.

The second type consist of CPN plus a descriptor denoting the semantic category of the entity concerned. This type of name is here called extended proper name (EPN). Examples include Kemijoki 'the River Kemijoki', Finlandiatalo 'the Finlandia Hall', the Republic of Finland. It should be noted here that there is no clear demarcation line between an officially recognized EPN like Suomen tasavalta '(the) Republic of Finland' or Oulun lääni '(the) Province of Oulu' on the one hand and a syntagm consisting of a CPN plus a more or less temporary descriptor of the type Toroppalan kylä '(the) village of T.' The difference here is a matter of usage, and usage impinges on the categorisation of a given name as proper or common. In Oulun lääni the appellative part is an integral element of the whole name. Omitting it would turn the name into the name of a town, whereas leaving out kylä in Toroppalan kylä would not have a similar effect.

Third, there are converted common nouns having all distinguishing features of proper nouns: Luonnontieteellinen keskusmuseo 'Finnish Museum of Natural History', Kansallisarkisto '(Finnish) National Archives', Torisilta 'Market Bridge'. What distinguishes this group from the first two is that names of the third group do not contain elements that are central proper nouns. This group will be called descriptive proper nouns (DPN) in the following.

Fourth, a proper noun is discarded in translation if it forms part of an idiom that is replaced with another idiom: to carry coals to Newcastle, Hobson's choice etc.

The above division mainly based on syntactic features glosses over the full complexity of the issue of how to distinguish between proper nouns and common nouns. Since Wittgenstein 1953, categorization has increasingly been seen not as a an all or nothing decision. Rather, an entity possesses more or less of the features on the basis of which it falls into a given category, whether for instance that of 'birds' or 'tall' person, to take two much-used examples. A prototypical bird is a two-legged animal that lays eggs and can fly. Therefore, a swallow is more 'bird-like' than a flightless bird, say, a penguin.

Seen from the perspective of prototype theory (cf. Bakken 2002), CPNs are most name-like in that they are arbitrary. At the other end of the scale are DPNs that show their appellative origin in full. They have been included in here due to the common features they share with type 1 proper nouns.

2. Dealing with proper names in translation

Proper names (used here interchangeably with the expression 'proper nouns') can be dealt with in a number of ways in translations. First, a PN can be transported wholesale from the target text (allowance being made for possible transliteration or transcription depending on the languages concerned). Second, it can be partly transported from the source language (SL) and partly translated. Thirdly, it can be replaced with more or less different names in the target language (TL). Finally, it can be dispensed with altogether. In the following I shall further refine this classification.

2.1.General considerations

Translation is an activity carried out in a given cultural context, never in vacuo. Language-external factors, that is, the communicative situation itself, impose certain limits on the translator's freedom of choice. That limitation aside, there are pragmatic factors that dictate the strategies that can or indeed must be used in the translation of proper nouns.

Taking into account the above distinction between CPNs and EPNs, a rough and ready rule is that the former are transported wholesale into the target language, while in the latter the descriptor part(s) are translated. However, the communicative situation as a whole has to be taken into account. For instance, the national language names of institutions do not normally specify the country: eduskunta 'the Parliament', l'Assemblée Nationale. As this information may be missing in the translated text, it may be advisable to add an adjective giving the necessary information: Kansallisooppera 'the Finnish National Opera'.

The above linguistic classification could have been used in the following. This, however, would have led to unnecessary repetition, wherefore in the following proper names will be discussed under different headings according to the type of referent: place names, personal names etc. This is not entirely satisfactory, but has the advantage of enabling easier access to the group of special interest to the reader.

2.2. Place names

2.2.1. Names of countries and regions

Names of countries seldom pose a problem to the translator. There are lists of the official names of countries in Finnish and English that should be consulted. In a few cases, variation does occur depending on the degree of formality involved. The official name that would be de rigueur in a diplomatic note or the text of an international treaty would be stilted in personal correspondence. For a translator from or into Finnish, Närhi 1994a gives the official names of countries in Finnish, Swedish, English, German, Russian and French.

For more information on place names in various languages, the database maintained by the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI) is a good source that may be consulted at the address http://www.eki.ee.

2.2.2. Settlement names

Names of towns, municipalities and villages are examples of settlement names. There is no problem with names of relatively unimportant settlements that are carried over unchanged in translation. The town of Rauma does not change its name, nor does London, Ontario. With smaller places, however, a gloss is often in place to give the reader an indication of the type of place concerned: Kuusamo might become 'the North-East Finnish town of Kuusamo' etc.

At the other end of the scale, larger cities often have conventional names used in foreign languages. København becomes Kööpenhamina, Köpenhamn, Kopenhagen, Copenhague etc., depending on the language. On occasion, the conventional name changes almost beyond recognition, when for instance København becomes Copenhaghen in Italian, or München Monaco di Baviera in the same language.

A special problem is constituted by names of towns in bilingual countries like Finland. Should the translator writing in a foreign language retain the Finnish or Swedish name used in the source text produced in Finland, use both, or try some other solution? This problem has been dealt with by Paikkala and Reuter (1997).

To give the background of the problem, Finland is a country with two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. (Only these two are called national languages in the constitution, which refers to separate acts concerning the rights of those using the Saami language or the sign language). Under the Constitution, the two national languages have equal status. At the local level, each municipality is administratively monolingual or bilingual. Under current legislation, a municipality or administrative district is monolingual if its residents all have the same native language or if the share of the minority language speakers is less than 8 per cent of the total. If the share of the minority language exceeds 8 per cent or the absolute number of 3.000, the municipality or administrative district is bilingual. To prevent an unwanted see-saw effect, a minority on the decrease has to go below 6 per cent (and not exceed 3.000) before a municipality is declared monolingual. The language status of each community is revised on the basis of census figures at ten-year intervals. The province of Åland, however, overwhelmingly Swedish-speaking, is monolingually Swedish, which status ultimately derives from the League of Nations decision of 1922 on the autonomy of the province.

The Board of National Languages gave the following recommendation in 1997 concerning the use of Finnish/Swedish names in a foreign-language text: In languages related to Finnish (e.g. Estonian), Finnish-language place names are used in case the language concerned does not have a conventional name for the locality. In texts in Scandinavian languages, the Swedish names should be used in case the language concerned does not have a conventional name for the locality.

In texts written in other languages, monolingual municipalities and other administrative districts should be referred to using the majority-language name of the place (e. g. Kokkola, Hanko and Porvoo, but Jakobstad, Pargas and Ekenäs). The same rules are applied to street names as well: Kauppiaankatu in Helsinki, but Köpmansgatan in Pargas.

2.2.3. Names of buildings and streets and subdivisions of towns

As for names of buildings and man-made structures in the form of EPNs, the general rule applies according to which the descriptor part is translated. There are exceptions, however. A PN may be a converted common noun like l'Arc de Triomphe, in which case the name is translated as a whole into most languages. Note, however, that German and English take over the French original. Much depends on how well-known a given structure is in the TL culture. The Stockholm sports arena and exhibition hall Globen is usually referred to as Globen in Finnish, while an English reader would probably need a clarification as part of the name, i. e. the Stockholm Globe if only to avoid confusion with the New Globe in Southwark. Of course, the sophistication of the audience here as elsewhere determines the choice between use or non-use of gloss. Glosses unnecessarily used are apt to irritate a reader who does not need them.

It is obvious that street names are handled differently depending on the communicative context in which they are mentioned. To take a trivial example, when writing to the country where the street is situated it is not only courtesy but plain common sense not to tamper with the address in any way. On the other hand, when giving the street address of the birthplace of a celebrity in a translated biography, there is no need to stick to the number + street order of the original English.

A further complication are street names used in contexts that do not allow the reader to infer that a given name is a street name. Supposing a Finnish text says that at such and such a time, a certain person lived Katinkujalla 'in Katinkuja'. A non-Finnish reader with no previous knowledge of the geography of the region would wonder how accurate the description is. Is the writer giving the name of a house, street or even a whole village? By tagging on a descriptor such as 'Lane' the translator will give the readers of the translation the necessary background information that will help them to form an appropriate picture of the world of the text.

Names of well-known buildings and other man-made structures usually have conventional names in foreign languages. By way of example, la Tour Eiffel becomes the Eiffel Tower in English. The name of the Statue of Liberty, constituting a descriptive title as a whole, is translated in toto. For Finland, the slim volume Julkisten rakennusten nimiä ja niiden käännöksiä 2000 (Names of Public Buildings in Translation) has been produced in order to bring a measure of order into a jungle of translations coined at different times by different translators.

2.3. Personal names

The basic rule concerning personal names is that they are left untranslated. In some cases, transliteration or transcription may be needed depending on the language. There are however, exceptions to this basic rule. A trivial one is that in certain languages (Chinese and Japanese, for instance) the order of a person's first and last name is the opposite to the most common Western order of first name + last name. In Europe, Hungarian last names come before first names.

An interesting introduction to the naming systems of the most important groups of immigrants to Finland is the small volume SUKUNIMI? ETUNIMI? Maahanmuuttajien nimijärjestelmistä 2002 ('Your last name? Your first name? On the naming systems of immigrants to Finland'), Mikkonen 2002. The booklet aimed at Finnish authorities contains introductions to the use of personal names in the Arab world, Spain and Portugal, Iran and Turkey, Korea, Somalia, Vietnam, and Russia and Ingria, pointing out possible sources of misunderstanding and cultural conflicts.

In certain cases the same person may be known by slightly different names in different countries. The Finn Anders Johan Sjögren made a brilliant linguistic career in Russia under the name of Andrei Mikhailovich Shegren. The Finnish or Russian name is used depending on the language of the text.

Like names of countries and large cities, well-known historic figures have conventional names used abroad: William the Conqueror 'Vilhelm Valloittaja', Charlemagne 'Kaarle Suuri', James II 'Jaakko II'. With improving communications and increasing knowledge of foreign languages, this practice may be becoming outdated. When Prince Charles ascends the throne, he will be called Charles III rather than Kaarle III in Finnish. Similarly, the present king of Spain is called Juan Carlos II. However, popes still have their names modified according to the language: the current (2003) Pope Giovanni Paolo II becomes Jean Paul II, John Paul II, or, more officially, Ioannes Paulus II, depending on the context.

There are also changing fashions in selecting this or that name form for a well-known historical figure. Knowledge or lack of knowledge of the foreign language obviously plays a role here. The French Louis XIV and his namesakes with other ordinals are known in Finland under their Swedish name Ludvig, while they keep their French names in Britain. For more examples on translation of names of historical figures, cf. Albin (2003).

Formerly, even the names of Swedish-speaking historical personalities used to be fennicized in Finland. Johan Wilhelm Snellman and Zachris Topelius were listed as Juhana Vilhelm and Sakari respectively in school-books. Modern encyclopaedias consistently use the Swedish mother-tongue forms of both these well-known figures.

In comparison with English, these follow the Greek original more closely in Finnish. For instance, Democritus becomes Demokritos and Plato, Platon. With minor orthographic modifications, English in many cases follows French closely: Ovid, Aesop and Aristotle as against Finnish Ovidius, Aisopos and Aristoteles.

An interesting case are the names of ordinary persons recorded in a language other than their mother tongue in historical documents. Should the names found in the documents be considered the 'real' names of the persons and therefore retained in translation or should the translator seek to infer the name form probably used by the person himself and his neighbours, so that a Finnish farmer known as Karl Persson in 18th century Swedish-language documents becomes Kalle Pekanpoika in a Finnish text?

In actual fact, the concept 'official name' is meaningful only in the context of modern name laws (in Finland, starting from 1921). Before that date, one can sum up the situation by saying that the same person could be variously addressed by different names by various agents, whether census officers, the law courts, or his family and neighbors.

2.3. Other names

Names of works of art including book titles

The first pragmatic consideration is finding whether or not the book has been translated into the TT language. If so, use the title of the translation. For major European languages, Room (1986) can be consulted for translated names of works of art, both literary and non-literary. Retaining the name of the original shows that no translation exists. For titles of Finnish fiction, consult the register of translations of Finnish books kept by Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (Finnish Literature Society).

Names of musicals, operas and ballets are sometimes retained in translation. My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Così fan tutte are known all over the world by the original names, a notable exception being Russia, where only translated name are used. Similarly, titles of Russian operas (The Swan Lake etc.) are normally translated, with the not surprising exception of names consisting of a personal name only (Boris Godunov, Yevgeni Onegin).

Names of organizations and institutions

Names of international organizations normally have translation equivalents in the member countries: the International Red Cross 'Kansainvälinen Punainen Risti'. In major languages, the acronym of an international organization is formed from the national name of the organization (e.g. French OTAN for English NATO). In languages of limited distribution like Finnish, only the most important organizations have acronyms based on the national-language name of the entity (YK 'UN', PN for Nordic Council etc.)

As regards the names of Finnish institutions in other languages, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office published two glossaries, Valtionhallinnon sanastoa englanniksi (Glossary of Goverment in English) and Valtionhallinnon sanastoa saksaksi (Glossary of Government in German) with the stated aim of harmonizing the English and German job titles and names of the various organs of central government in Finland.

2.4. Some special problems

2.4.1.Extended proper names in translation

A problem point in the translation of EPNs is whether or not to translate the appellative part. Should it be left in the SL form with a second descriptor added in the TL: Kemijoki 'the River Kemijoki' or should the original descriptor be stripped: the river Kemi? Usage varies here from one translator to the next. The choice is partially dictated by how likely the TL reader is to understand the SL descriptor in the TL equivalent. The less well-known the SL is in the target culture, the more likely it is for a SL descriptor (not recognized as such) to be retained in translation in addition to the TL translation of the same: Oulujoki 'River Oulujoki' (BrE)/'Oulu River' (AmE).

2.4.2. 'Second-hand' name

The term 'second-hand' name is used here to refer to source-text names from outside the source-text culture. An example would be a Russian name in an English-language text. Foreign names, that is, names foreign to the source text culture in the ST should always be tracked to the original language and translated directly from that. Failure to do so can be construed as ignorance at best and as a political statement at worst.

2.4.3. Adding a clarification

Like cultural allusions unlikely to be comprehended by the TL audience, names that may be well-known in the SL culture, often need to be provided with an explanatory comment. Sotkamon Jymy (a well known sports team) or Per Brahe (17th century governor general of Finland) probably mean nothing to most foreigners. Similarly, small natural features need a descriptor as opposed internationally known places like the Amazon, the Atlantic, or Antarctica. Even with smaller features, after a descriptor has been used once, it is often more natural to leave it out in the continuation.

2.4.4. Transliteration of names

Looking at the number of translation errors actually occurring in texts, a more frequent problem is that of the translator not paying attention to transliteration rules. This is more likely to happen if the source text using the Roman alphabet mentions place names from countries using a non-Roman script (say, Russian or Japanese). Since the rules of transliteration vary from one language to the next, retaining the English transliteration form of a Russian name in a Finnish text may result in an altogether unrecognizable name. The same is true of Ukrainian names in a Russian text. A good introduction into the transliteration of Russian names into other languages is Paikkala 2003 in the journal Kielikello (2/2003).

The transliteration of Russian names on passports is a problem that has started to attract attention in recent years. A Russian artist travelling around the world often requires that his or her name be publicized in one and only one form in Roman letters regardless of language. Formerly, this used to be the French transliteration of the original name also used on Russian passports for international use. For a number of years now, Russian passport authorities have been using English transliteration in the passports of its citizens.

It is understandable that an international performing artist should want to retain the same name form regardless of his/her stage. However, a foreign national seeking Finnish citizenship is in a different situation. To take an example, holders of Russian passports permanently resident in Finland have their names written in Roman letters according to either French (earlier usage) or English (present-day usage) transliteration rules in Finnish-language documents. Having different transliteration practices depending on the date of issue of the original passport is bound to result in confusion concerning the spelling and pronunciation of foreign names.


2.5. Conclusion

To sum up, PNs can be treated in a number of ways in translation:

  1. They can be imported unchanged from the SL text;
  2. They can be modified to fit the phonological/graphological system of the TL. This, of course, is something that has or has not been done for the translator by his/her speech community in the case of conventional place names like Prague, the Hague, Rome etc.;
  3. They can be expanded with a gloss to make up for the TL reader's lack of world knowledge in the target culture;
  4. On occasion, they might be omitted altogether (perhaps replaced with a paraphrase) if considered peripheral in terms of the central message of the text or if retaining them would be more likely to cause the reader to pause in puzzlement. True, this would be more likely to happen in interpretation, but could not be ruled out altogether in translation, either;
  5. In rare cases, they might even be introduced in the TL text where, instead of a proper name, the SL text contains a cultural allusion unlikely to be understood by the TL reader.

The choice between the various alternatives will be determined by pragmatic factors, paramount among which are the overarching purpose of the text and the translator's assessment of his/her intended audience.


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YK:n latinaistussuositukset: http://eki.ee.wgrs. (UN recommendations for transliteration into languages using the Latin alphabet).