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More on Geographical Name Conversion: The Process of Translation – Part I

We have explored transliteration and transcription, the first and second methods of geographical name conversion as established by the “Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names” by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, thus far. Prior to this, we had dabbled with exonymization, the fourth process described by the Manual. Learning about exonymization and how ambiguous this process could actually be, has made the exploration of more direct, clear-cut and professional methods of geographical name conversion eminent…  Hence, this series of posts on the different processes used for geographical name conversion. With this penultimate blog post on geographical name conversion, we will move on to translation, the third method as described by the Manual.

But, before we even get started, let us consider the definition of translation by the Manual: “…the expression of meaning of a word in a given language, the source language, in terms of another, the target language.” Now, taking this into consideration, translation, unlike transliteration and transcription, seeks to solve “the problem of how to name a place” rather than to do a “letter-for-letter transformation” between different scripts or a phonetic transformation of a name from one language to another. In other words, translation of a toponym does not seek to “preserve” an endonym’s original spoken or written form.

Translation is usually used by cartographic editors working on world atlases in a particular target language as well as in general geographical texts as a means to “…better convey to the reader the nature of the featured name.” The Manual suggests translation as a method of name conversion when the toponym includes a “translatable” generic term, meaning the source toponym (wholly or in part), has semantic or lexical meaning. According to the Manual, this occurs when the source toponym (again, wholly or in part) can be found in a dictionary. This guideline, however, does not apply to many one word toponyms such as London, Pretoria, Sydney, Kassel and Nantes.

Nevertheless, linguists can examine the historical or linguistic root of one word toponyms in a diachronic process. So for instance, in the case of Kassel, a German city, a diachronic process would lead to the Latin Castellum. The Manual suggests that for the translation of a toponym, the target language has to be clearly specified, so for the sake of this example, let us assume that Kassel needed to be translated, mainly with the purpose of understanding the meaning of it in a target language, as in Spanish, in which its equivalent is Castillo.

We have just looked at translation as a means of geographical name conversion for one word toponyms to get us started. My next blog post will focus on composite toponyms, or geographical names with more than one word, and will help to break down the guidelines to take into consideration when using translation as a means of geographical name conversion.