am a scientist. Specifically, I am a pharmacologist used to dealing with hard data. I am familiar with concepts such as accuracy and precision, as well as with rules that should be strictly followed. Yet there are always exceptions and these are, well, exceptions. The translation of geographical entities has nothing to do with science. These terms are all but accurate and precise, and exceptions are so frequent that no rule can be systematically applied. As in the case of the skipper in treacherous waters, all previous information, printed or electronic, may be useless unless one has a great deal of experience on the subject.
Thinking back, I now realize that I started working with geographical names when I was a child. In my bilingual Mexico City school we studied U.S.A.-Mexico relations in two languages. At the same time, we were trying to understand the complex dynamics of a former colony coming to terms with its Indian heritage. Translating, transferring or adapting the names of geographical entities in several languages was routine activity for all of us there.
I obtained my B.Sc. in biology from a Mexican university. As a biologist, I was surprised to find out that I still could not be oblivious to the translation of geographical terms, for many animal and plant species, as well as illnesses and pathological entities, are known by the place where they were initially observed or described. As scientific literature in Spanish is scarce, while writing term papers or making oral presentations I had little choice but to perform translations to the best of my ability. This chore soon turned into an intellectual interest, for I realized that translating, transferring or adapting geographical terms accurately is a most difficult, yet rewarding, task.
Life then took me to countries where more than one language was spoken. My first stop was Belgium, where I obtained my Ph.D. at the Université Catholique de Louvain. Later, in 1992, I was a visiting scientist at the Université de Montréal. These experiences contributed to increase such an awareness. I will now try to describe some of the challenges I have encountered when working with geographical entities, roadblocks that can be fun or painful, depending on the translator's abilities.
Old places, but not new ones, change names. True or false?
I have always wondered why certain cities and places are not known in their native forms in other languages, while others are. For example, Firenze is also known as Florencia and Florence, and London is known as Londres and Londra. Cities that change their names in translation are often old European towns, having been founded in antiquity or in the Middle Ages. This is the case of Lisbon, Krakow, Brussels, Rome, Cologne, among others. On the other hand, many cities in the American continent, founded as of the sixteenth century, keep their original name in different languages, Chicago, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Acapulco are a case in point. It could therefore be deduced that European cities have different names in translation (exonyms), because they are old, but the names of American cities do not get translated, because they are more recent.
However, this is not always the case. Amsterdam and Madrid are simply transferred, not translated, despite the fact that no one will dare question that these cities are European and old. On the other hand, for some cities located in the Caribbean, which are considerably less old, such as Port-au-Prince in Haiti, and Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, the name changes when translated into Spanish, becoming Puerto Príncipe and Puerto España, respectively. Surprisingly, the French preposition 'au' and the English one 'of' (de, in Spanish) are not used in these cases, as could be expected from a literal translation. To make things more difficult to generalize, and even to understand, let me mention the city of Cap Haïtien. This town is, as its name indicates, in Haiti—like Port-au-Prince. Although it is clear that its name begs to be rendered in Spanish as Cabo Haitiano, this is not the case. Cap Haïtien is transferred into Spanish as Cap Haitien. The only adaptation is that it loses the diaeresis (tréma or umlaut.) This is also true of its English form.
In French, translations of Caribbean cities can be thoroughly confusing to those unfamiliar with the subject. Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, is translated as Saint Domingue, not to Saint Dominique, as could be expected if we were to do a literal translation of the saint's name. But the fact that Santo Domingo gets translated doesn't mean that we have a hard and fast rule. Another Caribbean city christened after its patron saint, Santiago de Cuba, keeps its Spanish denomination unchanged when rendering it in French. If this were not confusing enough, in French Puerto Rico is Porto Rico, a spelling that is neither Spanish nor French. The literal translation would be Port Riche. In English, Puerto Rico is simply transferred from Spanish.
Expect the unexpected of cities named after their patron saints, whether in the Caribbean, in the Americas, or in Europe. The Galician city of Santiago de Compostela is translated into French as Saint Jacques de Compostelle, and into English as Saint James of Compostela. This seems logical, as Santiago's name in French is Saint Jacques and in English he is known as Saint James. Furthermore, it could be expected that when translating the name of a city designated after its patron saint, all that it is needed is to translate the name of the saint; but then again, this does always not hold true. Also located in the North of Spain, we find San Sebastián, a city that keeps its Spanish name unaltered in both English and French. It is simply transferred, not translated. This is also the case for Santiago, when we refer not to the Galician town, but to the capital city of Chile. Therefore, the theory that ancient cities change their names in different languages, while newer towns do not, applies to some, but to not all, cases. It is certainly not a general rule.
If you don't know the exact translation, keep the name in the original language. But, which is the original language?
It is sort of rule of thumb that when the translation of a geographical entity is not available, or it is not known to the translator, the best solution is to keep the place's name in its original language. Thus, the city of Nancy in Eastern France would remain Nancy in English and Spanish. Sometimes, though, a geographical term that is comfortably transferred into a given language, may need to be adapted or translated when rendering it in another. This is the case of the Dutch city of Maastricht. In French, it is adapted as Maestricht; in Spanish, however, there is no generally accepted translation or adaptation available. Because of this, when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed by the countries of the European Union, newspapers written in Spanish left the Dutch name unchanged3. When this happened, television and radio news anchors got headaches trying to pronounce it correctly.
In the sixteenth century the Low Countries belonged to the Spanish Crown. Because of this, some Dutch towns have Spanish translations for their names. This is the case of Nijmegen, which translates to Nimega. However, the name Nimega is seldom used at present, especially in Latin America. This can be easily verified by performing a Google search to find the pages in Spanish referring to the Catholic University of Nijmegen, a prestigious academic institution. If one performs the Google search using Universidad de Nijmegen, 1670 results are obtained. If the same search is performed using Universidad de Nimega, we only get 513 hits. Thus, if a translation is available, but is not widely acknowledged, it is sometimes preferable to leave the place's name in its original language.
The Low Countries pose a special challenge when it comes to the translation of geographical names. This region includes The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the North of France. As I've mentioned earlier, the Low Countries once belonged to the Spanish Crown. While some provinces became independent, others remained possessions of the Hapsburgs—these being initially Spanish and then passing on to Austrian suzerainty. To further complicate matters, some provinces in the East, despite belonging culturally to the Low Countries, formed part of the Holy Roman Empire, later known as the German Empire4. After a number of wars, over the centuries some provinces were gradually annexed by France. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 the victors, led by England, united what is now The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg into a single kingdom, known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which lasted until 1830, when Belgium seceded. Finally, in the nineteenth century the current borders, with some minor changes due to the World Wars of the twentieth century, were at last established.
This turbulent history had an effect in the particular evolution of the tongues spoken in the different provinces of the region. French, Dutch, and German, as well as local dialects, had been spoken for centuries. Linguistic borders, it seems, are a lot more difficult to establish than national limits. This situation, as it will be seen, yields some peculiarities in the translation of geographical entities.
The tongue spoken in the north of the Low Countries is known to its inhabitants as Nederlands. Nederlands is translated into French as Néerlandais, and into English as Dutch. Nederlands is the name of the actual language, which comprises all the local dialects spoken in The Netherlands and Flanders. As in many regions of Europe, the use of local dialects is rapidly decreasing because the dominant language is used in schools, the workplace, and the media. Surprisingly, there is no Spanish word for Nederlands. The word holandés is not accurate enough, for this term designates only the tongue spoken in Holland, and not in the other provinces of the realm. Moreover, the word flamenco corresponds to Vlaams in Nederlands, and only refers to the tongues spoken in Flanders—the northern provinces of Belgium—but does not apply to the country presently known as The Netherlands. I certainly do not advise anyone attending a football match between Belgium and The Netherlands to tell a Dutch supporter that he is speaking in Vlaams, unless the intent is to spark a riot.
In many cases, when there is doubt about translating the name of a given place, it is recommended that a document be found that serves as a primary source. This can be complicated in the Low Countries. Let's look at the city of Lille. Lille is located in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. Lille translates into Dutch as Rijsel. Road signs in Flanders designate Lille as Rijsel, leading to enormous confusion among motorists. Lille has no translation into English, as can be ascertained by consulting any of the road maps currently on the market. So, following the recommendation of keeping geographical names in their original tongue, Lille will remain Lille when translating a document. The problem here is that the city was originally Flemish.5 Lille became a part of France in 1713, and if we consider annexations and political allegiances, as we must, then Lille is hardly the only example of this quandary; Dunkerque (Duinkerke in Dutch) is another example. Furthermore, it is worth noting that several documents mentioning the original names are written in a Dutch dialect. Moreover, even some historical documents in English refer to Lille as Rijsel.6 Therefore, an inattentive translator consulting such documents may leave the city's name as Rijsel, instead of translating it to Lille. If this were to happen, French nationalists might be reasonably upset, while most readers, looking at conventional maps in languages other than Dutch, would never be able to locate the town of Rijsel.
The main port of Belgium is Antwerpen (in Dutch) and is translated as Antwerp in English, Amberes in Spanish, and Anvers in French. A curious detail is that Belgian francophones pronounce the final "s" of Anvers, while the French do not. There is a legend about the name Antwerpen. In the Middle Ages, we are told, a mean and nasty giant controlled traffic across the River Schelde, and asked for exorbitant tolls, exploiting the local population. A brave young man, named Brabo, confronted and defeated the giant. Brabo cut off one of the giant's hands with his sword and then threw it across the river. A town was founded on that site. The name of the town was Hantwerpen, a name derived from the Flemish words for hand and throw. With time, the initial "h" was left unpronounced yielding Antwerpen.7 Despite the fact that this seaport is a bastion of Flemish nationalism, its football team playing in the Belgian first division league is known by its English spelling, Antwerp, and not by its Dutch spelling Antwerpen—a quandary that may stump a translator working with Belgian sports terminology.
Another city name that may lead to confusion is Liege, a city where French has flourished for centuries. It is Liège in French, Lieja in Spanish, and Lüttich in German. Despite its strong attachment to French culture, Liege was governed by a Prince-Bishop who was an elector of the German Empire. Hence, for several centuries the city and its dependencies were part of the German Empire. Thus, when searching for documents on Liege, and particularly on ecclesiastical history, the name Lüttich may appear instead of Liège, even in documents written in English.8 A translator not familiar with its history may unwittingly lead the reader to confusion by using an inappropriate name for the city.
The confusion about the names of cities is not specific to the Low Countries, but also applies to other regions of Europe that often shifted allegiances, like Bohemia. The town of Budweis, for example, home of the famous Budweiser beer (may I request the reader not to mistake this top quality beer of Budweis with the lower quality Budweiser brand commercialized in the U.S.A.). Budweis is the town's name in German. It should be noted that Bohemia was a part of the Holy Roman Empire and then belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this period, German was the official language. However, since the Middle Ages, Bohemia has remained a bastion of Czech culture. After the World Wars of the twentieth century, Bohemia became a constituent of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic. Because of this, Budweis is also known by its name in Czech: Ceske Budejovice.9 Which is then the original name of the town, the German or the Czech denomination? Which name should be used in Spanish, English or French, when translating? These are questions that remain open, as I have not yet found a definitive answer. Once again, this is not an isolated instance. A similar case is the one of Plzen/Pilsen (in Czech/German), another Bohemian town famous for its beer.10
Present day European countries are the result of conquest by aggressive kings or of the not always fortunate border sculpturing resulting from negotiations carried out after the numerous wars that have raged through the continent. After World War II, however, a perhaps unsteady peace has found its home in Europe. As a consequence, nationalistic movements have flourished in the last decades, Spain being a good example of this situation. At present, autonomy has been achieved by many regions formerly ruled by iron fists. Following this trend, regions such as Catalunya (Catalonia) and Euskadi (the Basque Country) have renamed many of their towns in their vernacular tongues: Catalan and Basque. As previously mentioned, San Sebastián is a seaport located in Spain's Basque Country. We have already seen that San Sebastián is transferred as such into English and French. This is also the case, to my knowledge, for Italian, Dutch, and German, but not for Basque. The name of San Sebastián, when translated into Basque becomes Donostia, a name derived from Donebastian, a contraction of Done (saint) and Sabastián in the local tongue.11 This situation cannot necessarily be recognized by the average reader of today, and the translator should be aware of it when consulting local documents, both old and recent. San Sebastian is a bastion of Basque nationalism and many natives prefer to designate it as Donostia. However, the famous beach of La Concha, one of the symbols of the city, has no translation in Basque, and is designated by its Castilian name—even by the most recalcitrant nationalists. As mentioned above, the translation of place names is not the most rational of human activities.
The "o" in burgo did not make it across the Atlantic
Many European towns started as burgs. Thus, the suffix burg, or one of its variations, is frequently found at the end of a city's name. Hamburg, Strasbourg, Edinburgh, and Saint Petersburg are good examples. In Spanish, these names are translated by performing some spelling turns convenient to Spanish pronunciation, including the addition of the letter "o" at the end of the suffix, e.g., Hamburgo, Estrasburgo, Edinburgo, San Petesburgo. In North America, the European settlers founded several cities whose names had the suffix burg, or one of its variations; Harrisburg and Pittsburgh are a case in point. Unlike their European counterparts, in Spanish these American towns keep their original names when rendered into other languages. This explains why, in Spanish, one might hear phrases such as "tomé un avión de Hamburgo a Pittsburgh." The Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team is widely known in Latin America as Los Piratas de Pittsburgh. If a translator were to render it as Los Piratas de Pitsburgo, the average fan would not be able to recognize the team.
When translating the names of Canadian towns, beware not only of English and French, but also of a capricious use of Latin
Canada, as Belgium, has more than one official language. In most cases, the names of Canadian towns are simply transferred, not translated. This is the case of Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Regina, amongst others. This, however, does not always hold true in the eastern part of Canada, particularly in the Maritime provinces. The island of Newfoundland is known in French as Terre Neuve. It could be expected that in Spanish the translation would be Tierra Nueva, but it is not to be. Why make things easy if they can be made difficult? In Spanish, the name of the island is Terranova or Terra Nova as recorded in the early geography books.12 This is rather surprising, as Spanish is not a language keen on borrowing Latin names without adapting them. For example, Latin medical terms frequently undergo changes in Spanish (e.g., post partum=posparto), but not in English. Well, for Newfoundland it is the other way around. It seems that places in the Canadian Maritime provinces that have English and French names keep the Latin names when rendered into Spanish. No one said it was to be easy. In the Maritimes we also find the province of Nova Scotia, and yes, this Latin term is the official name in English—New Scotland being rarely, if ever, used. In French, as can be expected, the province's name is Nouvelle Ecosse. As it is widely known, French speakers, especially in Canada, are particularly sensitive to the use of English words, even if they are, in fact, in Latin. The reader can realize this immediately by visiting the official Canadian websites, as the Provincial and Federal Governments are always attentive not to make any gaffes when translating the names of geographical entities. In Spanish, unlike the case of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia's name is translated as Nueva Escocia.13 The term Nova Scotia is sometimes used, but is considerably less frequent. A Google search for web pages in Spanish for Nueva Escocia yields 70,200 hits. The same search using Nova Scotia yields only 21,500 results.
Names including the word "New": Gender and translation issues
As noted by Albin1, 2, determining gender in geographical entities is most difficult. When colonizing America, the English, French, and Spanish frequently named the new territories after cities, regions, or provinces in their home countries—adding the word "new" to the original name. This is the origin of New York, Nouvelle Orléans, and Nuevo México. The name New York corresponds to both, a state and a city. Unlike in English, where place names seldom have gender, French and Spanish are languages in which geographical names do have it. Translators should be extremely careful not to make mistakes. The word state translates as état and estado in French and Spanish, respectively; being masculine in both cases. On the other hand, city translates to ville and ciudad, both feminine. For New York, the name does not change in French. Thus, we have l'état de New York and la ville de New York. Since the wording New York has no gender designation, using the same name for the city and the state in the language of Molière is not problematic. This is not the case in the language of Cervantes. In Spanish, New York is translated as Nueva York. When Nueva York refers to the city, there is agreement in gender and things go smoothly; when we refer to Nueva York as an 'estado,' however, since the noun estado is masculine and the adjective Nueva is feminine, we most certainly have a problem.
In French, as previously mentioned, New York is simply transferred. On the other hand, New Orleans is translated as Nouvelle Orléans. This seems logical, as this city was founded by the French and hence this is its original name. Because of this, it could be argued that the French prefer to leave the names of the "New" towns in their original tongue. Well, once again, there is no room for generalization. Let's take, for example, New Mexico. New Mexico was founded by the Spaniards and then became part of Mexico. As a result, its original name is Nuevo México. After the Mexican War, it became a territory and later a state of the U.S.A., having its spelling changed to the anglicized New Mexico. Unlike New York, New Mexico changes its English name in French to Nouveau Mexique. So, once again, beware of generalizing.
Ending in "a" is normally feminine in Spanish. How does it translate into French?
It is a rule of thumb that in Spanish, with few exceptions, words ending in "a" are feminine, while those ending in "o" are masculine. This is not the case in French, were feminine names frequently end in "e." It can thus be assumed that geographical names ending in "a" in Spanish will end in "e" in French, e.g., Barcelona-Barcelone, Bolivia-Bolivie, Argentina-Argentine, and Colombia-Colombie. However, for other names ending in "a" in Spanish, their rendering into French keeps the name's spelling unaltered, but the gender changes. Such is the case of the Central American countries of Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua which are feminine in Spanish and masculine in French (e.g., le Guatemala). It can be argued that these names are not Spanish, but come from Amerindian tongues. Since the gender in the original name is not always known, the translation can yield a masculine or feminine term, without any apparent contradiction. Notwithstanding, in the case of Costa Rica, it is clear that this is a Spanish name and that it is feminine. Despite this, in French, the name is masculine le Costa Rica , and to the best of my knowledge, no one can explain why.
Careful with the accent: Same symbol, different value
The diacritic "´" has different value in Spanish and French. In Spanish the acento or tilde indicates a stressed syllable. In French, however, the same symbol, known as the accent aigu, denotes a change in the pronunciation of the vowel. In some cases, when these two different types of accents are considered equivalent, as the diacritic is the same, mistakes can be made. Let us consider the city and province of Quebec in Canada. In French, the spelling is Québec. However, here the accent indicates how the "e" should be pronounced. The stressed syllable is the last one, that is "bec." In Spanish, in order to respect the original pronunciation, the spelling must be Quebec. Writing Québec in Spanish would mean that the stressed syllable is the first one, that is "Que." The Microsoft spell-checker indicates Québec as the correct form. However, from a euphonic point of view, Quebec should prevail.
This is not only a matter of euphonics. To prove this point, let us examine the case of the city of Montreal, also located in the province of Quebec. In French, the name is Montréal, where the accent does not indicate the stressed vowel, but the way the "e" should be pronounced. In Spanish, the unquestionable spelling is Montreal, as it is clear that the stressed vowel is the "a." Even the MS spell-checker acknowledges that the correct spelling is Montreal. Moreover, if Montreal is written without the accent, this should also be the case for Quebec. Furthermore, in France we have the city of Orleans (in English spelling). In French, the spelling is Orléans, with the accent aigu to indicate how to pronounce the vowel "e." The stressed vowel, however, is the "a." The historically correct spelling in Spanish is Orleáns. This is due to the fact that the Duke of Orleans was a member of the Bourbon dynasty,15 rulers of Spain after the Hapsburgs, and therefore there are numerous documents containing the word Orleáns. Even the MS spell-checker agrees that Orleáns is the correct spelling in Spanish. To conclude, let us not forget that the accent "´" in French has a different phonetic value from that in Spanish. Hence, diacritical marks are never to be ignored when translating geographical names.
As can be seen, there is considerable room for mistakes when translating or adapting the names of geographical entities. Although some of the potential mistakes can seem quite banal, such as changing the name of a baseball team, translators cannot afford to ignore even the tiniest diacritical mark, prefix, or suffix. Furthermore, translators working with proper names are never working with just two languages. Proper names often require knowing many different languages, even dead languages like Latin and Classical Greek, as well as a considerable amount of history, in order to know how to work with them.
A bad translation of geographical terms can hurt some sensibilities, as pointed by Albin. 1, 2 It can also destroy the credibility of a given document, or even make it unintelligible. Hence, the translator should not only rely on printed or electronic sources of information, but must have significant experience on the subject. If this is not the case, the translator should seek an experienced advisor. As the skipper navigating in treacherous waters, if he knows where the rocks are and how the currents flow, he will arrive safe to port. If he does not, he'd better find an experienced pilot.
In the first place, I want to thank Verónica Albin, who has been my friend since my early childhood. Her previous work and her enthusiasm for the subject gave me the necessary motivation to write this article. Furthermore, I was extremely fortunate to rely on her excellent editorial assistance. It was Verónica, indeed, who made this work possible. I am also grateful to mi querido y respetado compañero de aulas, Hugo Enríquez, for his invaluable advice on how to improve my style in the language of Shakespeare. Un grand merci à mon cher ami, Michel Lisbonis, former consul adjoint of France in Mexico City, with whom I had long conversations on the Lille-Rijsel issue and, of course, on the complexities of Spanish and French. I also want to acknowledge that many of the ideas developed in this work were generated during the discussions I have had with my Canadian colleagues Patrick du Souich and John Wallace, highly cultivated globetrotters, whose experience is not limited to Canada, but includes many other places as well. Finally, allow me to express my deep thanks to Brigitte Van Waeyenberge, my cherished wife, as she is the main reason why I am interested in all things Belgian.By Gilberto Casta-Hernᮤez, Ph.D. | Published 06/3/2005
References1 Verónica Albin. What's in a name: Juliet's question revisited. Translation Journal vol. 7 No. 4. October 2003. http://accurapid.com/journal/26names.htm 2 Verónica Albin. Does Juliet's rose, by any other name, smell as sweet?. Translation Journal vol. 8 No. 1. January 2004. http://accurapid.com/journal/27names.htm 3 El Tratado de la Unión Europea de Maastricht (1992). http://clio.rediris.es/udidactica/maastricht.htm 4 The German Empire. The Encyclopedia of World History. http://www.bartleby.com/67/613.html 5 Cercle Michel de Swaen. Flandre et Pays Bas en France. http://www.mdsk.net 6 October 22, 1708 in History: Great Alliance Occupies Rijsel. http://www.brainyhistory.com/events/1708october_22_170839586.html 7 Antwerp. City on the Schelde. http://www.fortunecity.com/millenium/dipsy/31/places/antwerp.html 8 The History of the Christian Church—Chapter XIII. http://www.godrules.net/library/history4ch13.htm 9 Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: a Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848-1948. http://pup.princeton.edu/titles/7392.html 10 A chronological history of the Plzen. http://www.zcu.cz/plzen/history 11 Historia de Donostia-San Sebastián. http://web.jet.es/thori/historia.htm 12 Terranova. http://go.hrw.com/atlas/span_htm/newfound.htm 13 Nueva Escocia. http://go.hrw.com/atlas/span_htm/novascot.htm 14 Ambassade de France au Costa Rica http://www.ambafrance-cr.org 15 Los Borbones. http://www.boadilla.com/pages/borbones.htm