Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Proper Names in Translation

There is one extremely common – and yet easily avoidable – problem that I come across all the time when reviewing translations: the mistranslation of proper names.

It can be rather disheartening when you’re reviewing or proofreading a translation from a translator whose skill level is obviously high, and yet there are tiny, mistakes of this nature sprinkled throughout the text. I’m writing this article in hopes that I can help people to avoid missing out on lucrative job opportunities (as well as to avoid looking amateurish) through easily avoidable and pointless mistakes like these.

When using the Internet to assist with a translation, I’d estimate that 95% of your Internet time is spent on online dictionaries and the like. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this; personally, I rarely use physical dictionaries for translation. However when looking up names of, say, government institutions and such, a dictionary can actually throw you a fake-out. For example, if you try looking up the name of the branch of government that controls roads, trains, etc. in a particular language, you may get “Department of Transportation” – which is what this institution is called in the United States. In Japan, however, the English name is the “Ministry of Transportation”, and in the United Kingdom, this branch is called the “Department for Transport”. While the functions of these particular institutions are fundamentally almost identical, the fact is that the “Ministry of Transportation” and the “Department for Transport” simply do not exist in the United States.

Some people will (and do) make the argument, “But anyone would know what I was referring to, so that doesn’t count as a mistake!”


Does that mean that if I translate a phrase which carries the meaning “Barack Obama is the President of the United States” into English as “Berick Obomah is the boss of the America”, then this shouldn’t be counted against me, either? Yes, the meaning comes across. Yes, most people reading that would know what I was attempting to convey. But the fact remains that it is a mistake. While I do understand that many people would not find the former example to be such a dire error as the latter, they are both still technically wrong.

As I was saying, a dictionary cannot always be relied upon for the proper translation of proper names such as these. When dealing with the names of companies, government offices, etc., such as “ABC Shipping Co., Ltd.” or “Department of Education”, there is one extremely important piece of advice to remember:


Nowadays, most companies have their own websites – and a very large percentage of companies and corporations have websites in English – and virtually all facets of government in developed countries have their own websites as well. Use Google to track down these sites and find the official name for any company/corporation, government office, legal/professional/royal title, educational facility, or any other institution the name of which may come up in your translation project.

If you happen to be working on a project which involves a very small or new company that doesn’t yet have a website, or maybe even a government office from a smaller or underdeveloped nation which also doesn’t have a website, all is not lost. If worse comes to worst, you can always pick up the phone. I’ve actually had to do this several times in the past – call a company to find out the proper English or Japanese name, or even an embassy to find out how exactly I should translate the legal title of a diplomat or royal family member. It’s a bit of a task, but it will save you from making a mistake that may make it look like you just weren’t trying.

Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of this oft-overlooked facet of translation. There are so many translators out there who have wonderfully honed skills and who would normally be considered quite professional, and who often make the mistake of failing to properly translate a proper name here and there, thus lowering not only their image as professionals, but also chances of receiving bigger, important projects from PMs and outsourcers in the future. Don’t let this happen to you. Researching these proper names usually only takes a minute, and a lot of times it’s the little things like this that really count towards a translator’s good reputation.