What’s in a name

Something a student of mine said recently got me thinking. She told me that her English teacher at school had told her, and the class, that you should never translate the names of monuments and landmarks into the target language. Therefore, according to the teacher, the Pao de Acucar must never be translated as Sugar Loaf and Cristo Redentor must never, under any cirmcumstances, be translated as Christ the Redeemer. Upon hearing this, a number of questions popped into my head. Why did the teacher limit his dictate to monuments and landmarks? What about the names of countries, cities? The names of people? And companies? And does such a rule exist? Or is it arbitary? Do we just translate proper nouns into the mother tongue whenever it takes our fancy? What do we tell students who say the ‘palacio do Buckingham? O estatua da liberdade? Africa do Sul? Londres? Henrique Oitavo? And is it even worth worrying about?

The issue has become increasingly important, especially since the end of the so-called colonial era and the later spread of globalization and global communications. For the end of empires, especially the British empire, meant that the forces of cultural and linguistic domination were broken and newly independent countries could begin to redefine there own cultural and linguistic references. Globalization and the internet has meant that we are now able to access other cultures much more easily, and therefore we need to be much more culturally sensitive to issues such as how we refer to things like people, cities and national landmarks. The fact that English has become the established global language has only confounded the problem because, afterall, nobody wants to be accused of cultural imperialism.

Initially, I told my student that I personally have a preference for not translating proper nouns into English, preferring to use the original from the source language. So, my preference would be to refer to Cristo Redentor and Pao de Acucar rather than their anglicised equivilents. However, I added that you may choose to translate if a monument, or whatever, is conventionally referred to by its translated name. So, Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf would be perfectly acceptable, whereas John Person in the northeast of Brazil would not be. And god forbid if we started referring to the ‘king’ of Brazilian music as Robert Charles.

However, the more I have had time to consider this question, the more doubts have arisen in my mind, especially concerning my own language use and what I choose to correct my students on. Why is it that I will refer to the northern Italian city as Milan on the one hand, and then on the other, dutifully correct a student who says, ‘Milano’? Likewise, why do I find myself quite justified in correcting James Bond’s zero-zero-seven in the classroom, but quite happily use it when I am speaking Portuguese? And why is it that what used to really irk me were people who would drop the original proper nouns into their conversation? People who said ‘I have just got back from Milano’, and ‘Did you go to the Van Gogh (pronounced ‘go’) exhibition. At the time, I found it so affected, and still do. But wasn’t this what I had just advised my student to do? One thing I am certain of, and that is, I am not consistent. And I am not the only one. Having surfed the net looking for clarification, it appears that teachers, learners and professional translators offer widely differing views on what should and should not be translated into the target language.

Alireza Sadeghi Ghadi, on his interesting website about translation, sums up four different approaches to the translation of foreign words:

  1. They can be imported unchanged from the source language text;
  2. They can be modified to fit the phonological/graphological system of the target language;
  3. They can be expanded with a gloss to make up for the target language reader’s lack of world knowledge in the target culture;
  4. On occasion, they might be omitted altogether (or perhaps replaced with a paraphrase).

However, as I said before, there seems to be little agreement as to when these approaches should be applied, and of course, there are a myriad of exceptions.                                       So, I do not have any answers, and I certainly don’t have any rules or guidelines to give you. However, what my student said to me has certainly got me thinking. And as such, I will hopefully now think twice before I correct a student’s use of Pao de Acucar.
Ghadi, Alireza Sadeghi (2010)

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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