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What´s a translated name?





Translation is an art and there are many challenges that face a translator. The issues of how, and when, to translate personal names are some of the more sensitive.

Picture of two wild bottlenose dolphins swimming together

Humans are not the only creatures to have personal names. Leaving aside the practice among some human cultures of giving their pets human names, researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland studying bottlenose dolphins in Florida, found that the dolphins have personal names for one another. An infant dolphin chooses its own name and continues to use that name throughout its life.


These facts suggest certain cultural differences. For one thing, with the exception of those people who have taken legal steps to change their names, human names are generally given rather than chosen. Furthermore they can be subject to change at different times in a person's life.


A blacksmith at work at an anvil

Personal names can convey a great deal of information about an individual, and about the values of their culture. For example, the common English name, John Smith. John is the name of a Christian saint, and Smith is a reference to the type of work done by John's ancestors. Apart from in cases of illegitimacy, John's last name, aka surname (meaning 'sire name'), will have been inherited from his father's side. And John's mother, Jane Smith, will have lost the surname with which she was born, and have been given the surname Smith when she married John's father. This all tells us something about the patriarchal, Christian culture into which John was born. Whether to keep the name in different translations will reveal the translators' levels of foreign language knowledge, and their cultural awareness.


For language students an analysis of the names at your English summer camp or on your German course in Berlin will reveal fascinating cultural information about your new friends. Please add to this store of knowledge and tell us your favourites.

Pictures by Archaeon and Matt Kiefer

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