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

We have explored transliteration, transcription, and exonymization; three of the four 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. More recently, we started looking at the translation of geographical names; which is actually the third of the four suggested methods in the Manual. We first analyzed the translation of one-word toponyms; now we will look at the translation of more complex toponyms in addition to some guidelines to take into consideration when we use translation as a means of geographical name conversion.

For composite names, or toponyms with more than one word, translation can also be used as long as the toponym has semantic or lexical meaning in one of its parts. So, according to the Manual, there are two parts to composite names:

  1. The first is the generic component, which is a word with lexical meaning as in river, hill, town, bridge, new, for example.
  2. The second is the specific component which could be any word, not necessarily lexical, including proper names and toponyms. Here are some examples provided by the Manual: “Victoria” in “Lake Victoria,” or “York” in “New York” and “Swansea” in “Swansea Bay.”

However, the Manual does highlight that “generics” translation (that would be translating the generic component of a toponym) can lead to both accurate and inaccurate translations. For example, Lake Victoria is a real lake, one of the African Great Lakes, and therefore, its generic component is true and accurate. However, this is not the case for Lake Placid in New York State which is a populated place (and not a lake), hence, making lake a false generic.

So, with all this background on the translation of toponyms, it still may not be clear when to actually use this method of name conversion or even how, for that matter. The Manual establishes that the linguist must first check the toponym for meaning and “isolate” its translatable parts. After doing this, the following possibilities arise:

  1. The name is non-translatable or is not to be translated for other reasons. Some examples would be London, Pretoria, Sydney, Kassel and Nantes; those one word toponyms we previously discussed.
  2. The name is a composite one, composed of a specific and a generic part (order is irrelevant). This then provides the linguist with three possibilities:
    • Only the generic element is translated. The Manual provides as examples: Sliabh Speirin (Irish) – Sperrin Mountains; Simonstad (Afrikaans) – Simon’s Town.
    • Only the specific element or elements of the name are translated, as in Sierra del Sur (Spanish) – Southern Sierra and Pacific Ocean – Stiller Ozean (German).
    • Both specific and generic elements are translated, for instance: Tafelberg (Afrikaans) – Table Mountain.
  3. Finally, the specific component can be adapted (and not necessarily translated) to the target language, as in the previous example of Sliabh Speirin (Irish) – Sperrin Mountains. Ocean / Ozean in the case of Pacific Ocean – Stiller Ozean (German) is also an adaptation, and not a translation, in this case derived from Greek / Latin.

Ultimately, the Manual concludes that a proper toponymist will need to combine the skills comprised within transliteration, transcription and translation when it comes to geographical name conversion, since this is indeed no easy task.