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You may find the titular question somewhat redundant – is Christopher Columbus’ name not… Christopher Columbus? The answer is yes and no, and the question opens up a broader discussion on translating proper names. We will explore this topic with numerous examples that may help you with dilemmas in English and some other languages, as well as improve your writing.
To start, let us refresh our knowledge on proper nouns. These are broadly divided into three categories: names of beings (people, animals, and mythological or literary creatures), names of geographical places (e.g. cities, countries or rivers), and names of particular (unique) things (e.g. organisations, companies or works of art).
Broad guidelines on how to approach the translation of proper names (if at all) exist for each category. Rules may vary from language to language, but generally speaking the guidelines below are true for English and Slovene, as well as many other European languages.
Names of beings
Names and surnames that originate from languages with the Latin alphabet typically remain unchanged. For example, revered British playwright William Shakespeare or famous American actor Anne Hathaway (or Shakespeare’s wife with the same name, if you will) retain the same spelling in Slovene, French, Spanish and many other European languages, but not all. If you wander into a bookshop in Serbia looking for local translations of the Bard’s works, you will find the author’s name spelled as Vilijam Šekspir (or Вилијам Шекспир) and a poster for an upcoming Hollywood film may have En Hatavej (or Ен Хатавеј) listed as one of its stars. The reason behind this is quite simple: Serbian uses both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. The latter must transliterate all Latin names and replace non-existing letters with their nearest equivalents – the same principle was then applied to Serbian Latin script as well.
English also transliterates names when they are originally written in a different script. For example, we know the Ukrainian president as Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Ukr. Володи́мир Зеле́нський), the Chinese president as Xi Jinping (Chi. 习近平), and the Armenian president as Vahagn Khachaturyan (Arm. Վահագն Խաչատուրյան).
Other examples of translation or transliteration include:
Some names of historical persons and rulers
Certain names of very famous or historically influential people have different variants, depending on the language. For instance, one of the most notable Roman leaders is known in English as Julius Caesar, while in Italy you will find his name spelled as Giulio Cesare and Jules César in French.
A few other examples:
- Elizabeth II (Spa. Isabel II, Slo. Elizabeta II., Ita. Elisabetta II)
- Ferdinand Magellan (Por. Fernão de Magalhães, Ita. Ferdinando Magellano)
- Alexander the Great (Fre. Alexandre le Grand, Slo. Aleksander Veliki, Gre. Μέγας Αλέξανδρος)
- Franz Ferdinand (Ita. Francesco Ferdinando, Slo. Franc Ferdinand)
This brings us to Christopher Columbus. If you ask the Spanish, they may tell you his name was Cristóbal Colón, in Slovene we know him as Krištof Kolumb, and in Italian he goes by Cristoforo Colombo. As he was born in Genoa, Italy, the latter seems as the most logical candidate for his birth name. However, according to several historical sources, he also referred to himself as Christoual, Christovam, Christofferus de Colombo, and even Xpoual de Colón. We cannot (yet) go back in time and ask him to introduce himself, so the answer to our titular question could be: we are not sure, but given his historical significance, all variants are valid and grammatically correct in their respective languages.
Names of religious leaders
Names and titles of some religious leaders are transliterated in multiple languages. Pope Francis is thus known as papež Frančišek in Slovene, Papst Franziskus in German, and papa Francesco in Italian. Similarly, the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama is transliterated into Slovene as Dalajlama and into French as Dalaï-lama.
The same is true for names of Christian saints – hardly surprising, as the Bible is one of the most translated works in history. Saint Joseph, for example, is known in Italian as san Giuseppe, in Slovene as Sveti Jožef, and in Spanish as san José.
Names of mythological and literary beings
Those mythological beings that are broadly culturally significant typically have language-specific equivalents, for example:
- Odysseus (Ita. Ulisse/Odisseo, Slo. Odisej)
- Romulus and Remus (Ita. Romolo e Remo, Slo. Romul in Rem)
- King Arthur (Slo. Kralj Artur, Spa. rey Arturo, Ita. re Artù, Ger. König Artus)
The decision to translate or not to translate names of literary characters is usually left to the translator. In the works of classical literature, transliteration of names is fairly common (e.g. Don Quixote, Spa. Don Qijote / Romeo and Juliet, Slo. Romeo in Julija). Translators of modern literature are less likely to change names of characters. Stories for children and adolescents are exceptions to this rule, as physical appearance or personality traits are often embedded in characters’ names and translating them helps young readers to better understand and immerse themselves into the story (e.g. Italian readers know the character of Frodo Baggins as Frodo Sacconi, French readers as Frodon Sacquet/Bessac and Slovene readers as Frodo Bisagin/Bogataj).
Names of geographical places
As a general rule of thumb, geographical names originally written in the Latin script usually retain their spelling; however, there are many notable exceptions. English and many other European languages use their own names for:
- Countries and regions: Germany (Ger. Deustchland, Fre. Allemagne, Slo. Nemčija), Finland (Slo. Finska, Fin. Suomi), Japan (Ita. Giappone, Jap. 日本 – ‘Nippon’), Tuscany (Ita. Toscana, Slo. Toskana)
- Continents: Africa (Slo. Afrika, Fre. Afrique), Australia (Slo. Avstralija, Fre. Australie, Ger. Australien)
- Astronomical objects: Earth (Ita. Terra, Slo. Zemlja), Moon (Ita. Luna, Ger. Mond), Betelgeuse (Ger. Beteigeuze, Slo. Betelgeza)
- Some larger islands and peninsulas: Sardinia (Ita. Sardegna), Greenland (Dan. Grønland, Kal. Kalaallit Nunaat), Horn of Africa (Fre. Corne de l’Afrique, Slo. Afriški rog)
- Bodies of water and mountain ranges: Danube (Ger. Donau, Slo. Donava), Nile (Ita. Nilo, Slo. Nil), Pyrenees (Spa. Pirineos, Slo. Pireneji)
- Some cities (with historical or cultural significance): Vienna (Ger. Wien, Slo. Dunaj, Cro. Beč), Venice (Ita. Venezia, Slo. Benetke, Ger. Venedig), Cologne (Ger. Köln, Ita. Colonia)
Names of things
The majority of the names under this category have (official) equivalents in most languages, with some notable exceptions. Let us look at some examples:
Names of organisations are usually translated and have official localised names, such as:
- UN, United Nations (Fre. ONU, Organisation des Nations unies, Slo. OZN, Organizacija združenih narodov)
- WHO, World Health Organisation (Fre. OMS, Organisation mondiale de la Santé, Slo. SZO, Svetovna zdravstvena organizacija)
- EU, European Union (Fre. UE, Union européenne, Slo. EU, Evropska unija)
Some organisations do have official translated names, but are known by their (English) acronym, which is typically read as a word, for example: NATO (known as NATO in most languages except for French, which uses OTAN) and UNICEF.
Names of literary and artistic works are also regularly translated, e.g. The Divine Comedy, Crime and Punishment, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Birth of Venus.
Works of literature that do not have an official translation are best referred to by their original title, but a descriptive, unofficial translation may be used for clarity.
Names of companies, brands and publications are not translated. Apple is known as Apple in all languages and the same goes for Volkswagen, L’Oreal and Mulino Bianco. Similarly, we read newspapers, such as Der Spiegel, El País, la Repubblica and Le Monde.
Do you know any other interesting examples of proper names and their translations? Are you scratching your head about another grammatical dilemma? Let us know in the comments below or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are also here to help you with all your translation needs!