Although the examples above may seem haphazard and leave the impression that translation of proper names is best left to master wordsmiths, we can nonetheless derive some general rules about translating proper names.
First, don't just make up something unless you have no alternative. Instead, start with the following:
• Always check to see if there is an existing, well-accepted, or official translation. Internet search engines make this a simple task, whereas before 1995 it was quite a chore, often involving faxes and overseas phone calls.
• If no official translation exists, check for an established translation, or at least a translation that has been in use for a while. Again, search engines make this straight-forward.
• If there are two competing established translations, choose the one that is either more appropriate for the material you are working on, or the one that is more often used.
If no translation exists at all, and this does happen to me from time to time, then I suggest the following:
• For official, bureaucratic, or governmental names, be literal within the limits of the target language. This is safe and effective in the vast majority of cases.
• For product or service names, check with the client. Branding is an art unto itself, and translators should participate, but should only go it alone after given the go-ahead to do so.
• For cultural or other local names, do your best to recreate the feel of the original while also producing something meaningful in the target language.
For instance, in Japanese we have the phrase "muko-nage" for a local custom in northern Japan in which a newlywed bride watches her husband, who has usually had a few cups of saké to prepare, tossed from atop a small ledge into a snow bank by his friends. This demonstrates his bravery and fidelity to her, and her commitment and compassion to him. So how to translate it?
Bridegroom Tossing would work, as long as the reader is duly and quickly informed of the details. Of course, this sounds a bit like "dwarf-tossing," with all the connotations that brings, so perhaps leaving muko-nage as is, and adding an explanation would be better. I make such decisions based on the text I’m translating and the needs of my clients, and usually after some conversations with translator friends, Japanese native speakers, and a bit of research.
Finally, do not attempt to be overly cute, clever, or creative. Usually you will fail. Occasionally you may succeed, and impress yourself, your client, and your readers. My favorite example of such a success in Harry Potter is the French translation for the Sorting Hat: choixpeau magique. My hat is off to the translator Jean-François Ménard for that one.