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Translator Problems II: Tips on the Localization of Proper Nouns

Following on from my last post, in this entry I’m going to be looking at the challenge of localizing proper nouns; that is, nouns that start with a capital letter. What makes translating these tricky is the fact that they often contain grammatical structures and cultural elements that are unique to the foreign language or foreign culture, and which can thus complicate the task of translating them.

This frequently occurs in literary translation, where the issue of the translation of characters’ names arises. An example is the famous children’s book The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter. If we consider the title of the book’s Spanish translation, El cuento de la oca Carlota, we see that the translator chose not to use the name Jemima, which isn’t of Hispanic origin, and instead chose to make her Carlota, which probably resonates a little more with Spanish-speaking readers.

Moving away from literature, another difficulty lies in the translation of names of institutions. While organizations that are known all over the world, such as the UN and the World Bank, usually have standard translations used by all linguists (in Spanish, these two are la Organización de las Naciones Unidas, or simply las Naciones Unidas, and el Banco Mundial respectively), lesser-known organizations – often national ones – require the translator to draw upon their best judgment. One example of this is the proper noun Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, a Mexican university. Since this institution has no standard translation in English, the translator is left with a number of options: the ‘Autonomous University of Mexico State,’ the ‘Autonomous University of the State of Mexico,’ or the ‘Autonomous Mexico State University.’

In the previous two examples, the translator has various options when it comes to rendering the proper noun in the target language. However, with place names this isn’t always the case. Big cities which are of significance in international politics or tourism tend to have a standard translation in foreign languages as well as their name in the language of the country where they are found. For example, the Italian city of Firenze is what we know as Florence in English and what is called Florencia in Spanish-speaking countries. If they have to refer to such famous cities, then, translators can do so seamlessly by using the name in the target language. However, smaller cities, towns and villages don’t tend to have translations in foreign languages. This can make the translator’s task a little more difficult, since they are obliged to use the name in the local language, and if necessary, explain where this place is in their translation, which can disrupt the flow of their work.

Once again, we have seen that translation is often much more complex than first meets the eye. If you have a document requiring localization, please click here to obtain a free quote.