Endonyms and Exonyms: Say What?

Ever wondered why London becomes Londres or Londra but Chicago remains Chicago? You may have not come across the terms endonym and exonym per se but you may have definitely encountered these concepts when pursuing translation work. Understanding both concepts will surely make translation a much easier task to tackle and will also help you avoid some quite common (and even disastrous) mistakes.

The terms endonym and exonym relate to the names of places, ethnic groups, languages or even the names of individuals. While an endonym is the name given by an ethnolinguistic group, an exonym, on the other hand, is the name given by an external ethnolinguistic group to that same thing. Examples of endonyms, for instance, include Deutschland which is Germany in German and Farsi which is Persian in well… Persian, the language spoken predominantly in Iran but also in other countries of South and Central Asia. Taking these same examples from before, Germany and Persian are the English exonyms of Deutschland and Farsi.

Sometimes exonyms can be quite similar to their endonyms. Also, they often times tend to simplify the given name (endonym) to the outgroup’s language, as in the case of Brazil/Brasil and Italy/Italia. Although there are no clear-cut guidelines as to how exonyms are developed, a good (sort of) general rule to keep in mind is that most European capitals have English exonyms, for example: Athens (Αθήνα/Athína), Brussels (Bruxelles, Brussel), Moscow (Москва/Moskva), Prague (Praha), Rome (Roma), Vienna (Wien) and Warsaw (Warszawa), among many others. You may wonder, why is this? Well, because exonyms develop, in this case, for places of significance for English speakers. Nevertheless, other European capitals may not have English exonyms but do have exonyms in languages spoken nearby as in Ljubljana and Zagreb, which are Laibach and Agram in German, respectively.

Gilberto Castañeda-Hernández, in “Navigating through Treacherous Waters: The Translation of Geographical Names,” mentions that he has also found a very similar pattern in which older cities’ names are translated while newer cities are less likely to have exonyms. In this regard, he also found another particularly interesting pattern: That older European cities ending in the suffix “burg” like Hamburg, Strasbourg, Edinburgh and Saint Petersburg have Spanish translations, Hamburgo, Estrasburgo, Edinburgo and San Petersburgo, respectively. However, cities ending in the same suffix in North America do not get translated. So, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh remain Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in Spanish.

To add to the complexity of these (sort of) guidelines, some European capitals keep their endonyms in most other European languages, like Madrid, Berlin and Amsterdam. So in conclusion, my best advice when it comes to translating names is: Research! Lots and lots of research. Castañeda-Hernández recommends finding primary sources whenever there is the slightest of doubts on how to translate a name. He also recommends keeping the place’s name in its original language in the case that you are unable to find reliable information on exonyms. However, he does caution on making sure you understand which is the original language of that geographical entity, this is particularly the case for ethnolinguistically diverse regions.

If you are interested in learning more about endonyms and exonyms, check out an endonym map of the world by visiting the following link: https://endonymmap.com/. Now, if you want to see the translation of endonyms gone wrong, click here: https://haonowshaokao.com/2013/04/25/chinese-map-of-europe/. Although both maps have some mistakes (as admitted by the bloggers), they are nevertheless very interesting and help to put endonyms and exonyms into perspective.