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Translating People and Places

When we read a newspaper, a novel or a text from any other genre, we are sometimes faced with references that we don’t understand. Often we will gloss over these as they don’t hinder our understanding of the text, but sometimes we will go away and look up the reference, either because we need to in order to make sense of the text or perhaps just because we’re intrigued!

This usually only happens on the odd occasion when we’re reading in our native language, and this is how it should be in a translation too – no matter what we’re reading, we don’t want to be interrupted every sentence or so and confronted with something that we have no clue about! A translator will always have this in mind – the texts that they produce need to make sense to the target audience and not throw up constant challenges to obstruct their understanding! And it is often cultural references that end up throwing a spanner in the works…

Names of people and places are some of the most common references that can be found in a variety of texts, and while some places and people will be familiar to readers who don’t belong to the source culture, others won’t be and will need to be changed for the original image to be invoked in the reader’s mind.

Here are a few ways that translators deal with translating the names of people and places…

  • Keep it! Examples include: Big Ben and the Taj Mahal
  • Sometimes the name of a place or person will be known among the target audience and will also be translated as the exact same word(s) in the target language (sometimes with a slightly different pronunciation depending on the languages involved). Here, the translator has an easy task and doesn’t need to make any changes!
  • Change the spelling Examples include: Paul (English), Pablo (Spanish), Paweł (Polish) and Julia (English) and Giulia (Italian)
  • This is often applied to names of people that are spelt differently in other languages, but are ultimately variants of the same name.
  • Provide the reader with a bit more information Examples include: They went to the Reeperbahn, a famous party street in Hamburg, and I’m going to visit El Prado, the museum in Madrid.
  • Sometimes a translator will help the target audience by providing additional information relating to references that are not likely to be well-known in the target language. They can do this in a number of ways, for example adding extra words before or after the reference in the text, providing a glossary, or marking the word with an asterisk and providing more information in a footnote.
  • Replace the word with an equivalent in the target culture Examples include: My brother had his head buried in another one of Proust’s novels à My brother had his head buried in another one of Mark Twain’s novels
  • This usually only works when the reference is not overly important in the source text, so it can be replaced with the name of a place or person with similar connotations in the target culture.
  • And finally, get creative!    
  • Some of the names in the English version of Harry Potter are actually already French; Fleur Delacour translates literally as ‘yard flower’, while Voldemort is literally ‘flight/theft of death’ – the French translator of Harry Potter (François Ménard) decided to keep these the same in the French books, perhaps to avoid making too many name changes, but it is worth noting the different connotations in the two languages!
  • Some characters’ names (Harry, Hermione and Ron) are kept the same as in the English books, but some are translated (fairly literally) into French. Neville Longbottom, for example, becomes Neville Londubat (long-du-bas = long in the bottom).
  • The House Slytherin was translated as Serpentard in French, which contains the word for snake (serpent), but perhaps loses the slightly more subtle hint in the English version, which doesn’t use the direct word for snake, but rather a snake-like quality or movement.
  • The name of the school Harry attends, Hogwarts, becomes L’École de Poudlard (Poux-de-lard) in French, which literally translates to ‘the school of bacon lice’! It’s thought that some of the more inventive names in the books were translated to keep some of the original meaning, so here the warts have become lice and the hog has become the fat of a pig!
  • This is where translators get to have a bit of fun, especially when translating literary works! It can be very tricky though and sometimes the translator really has to get his or her thinking cap on. Have a look at these examples of translating Harry Potter into French…

At Tongue Tied we make sure that our translators are not only native speakers of the target language in question, but that they are also based in the country where the target text will be used. This means that they are au fait with the cultural customs of the target audience. They will also have an outstanding awareness of cultural issues relating to their source language as well, so that they will be able to understand concepts that may be alien to someone without their skills and expertise. If you have any culturally challenging texts that need translating, let us know!



Isabella Fink

Isabella Fink

I am native Austrian and studied Linguistics and Literature at the University of Innsbruck and in Manchester, so language and translation has always been a passion of mine. Before joining Tongue Tied, I have worked as a Translation Assistant and in Customer Services and Purchasing.

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