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Do Names and Titles Need to be Translated?

names translations

Last updated on May 17th, 2021 at 02:39 pm

What are the rules for Translating Names and Titles

When I first joined the translation industry, I came in with plenty of misconceptions- names & titles translations being one of them. 

While in training at a translation agency, I was called out for overlooking translations of names.  Puzzled, I’d turned to the patient project manager and remarked- “That’s a name of a building, and that’s a title of a document.  Surely, these are untranslatable?” 

My point of view was that names were identifying labels, that simply ought not to be translated.  But when taken from the translator’s point of view- the topic of translating names is not so simple. 

A well seasoned translator knows that their work is not as shallow as simply translating words on a page, but that it also requires a deep understanding of the culture involved with the written dialect they are working with.  The saying- “You can’t take the culture out of a language, nor the language out of its culture” is one that flows through the translator’s blood.  

Translation of names is no different, and is in some ways even more complex.  Due to culture and several other factors, names and titles need to be handled with sensitivity, to assure that the resulting translation is culturally appropriate and makes sense to the intended audience- while keeping the original message intact.  

Name Equivalents or Name Translation?

What if a name in one language could ‘become’ a different name in another?  What would your name in another language be?

When I visited Italy many Springs ago, a lovely tour guide gushingly informed me that my name “Flora” was a well loved Italian name.  She also told me there were several other variations of the name used in Italy, and other countries.  However, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘name equivalent’ that matches with my name. 

Here then, are a list of names and their english equivalents:

GUILLERMO is the Spanish form of WILLIAM
LILIANA is the Spanish form of LILLIAN
MATEO is the Spanish form of MATTHEW

JACQUES is the French form of JACOB or JAMES
GUILLAUME is the French form of WILLIAM
GAULTIER is the French form of WALTER

ADÃO is the Portuguese form of ADAM
CARLOTA is the Portuguese (and Spanish) form of CHARLOTTE
CARLOS is the Portuguese and Catalan form of CHARLES

As for our company name, JR Language Translations, we decided to go to market in Spanish speaking countries as  “Traducciones JR”.  A word for word translation doesn’t usually work for marketing purposes.  

Translations of Book Titles

When translating a well known book title like “The Importance of Being Earnest”- the pun of the word “Earnest” and the main character’s name “Ernest” has posed a unique challenge to translators.  In English, the term “earnest” is defined as “a serious and intent mental state” and that meaning is central to the plot of the book. 

How have translators worked around this?  Here are a few examples:

  • In the Italian translation L’importanza di essere Franco/Severo/Fedele the proper names shown convey respectively the values of honesty, propriety and loyalty.
  • In the French translation De l’importance d’être Constant , “Constant” is both the name of the main character and the quality of steadfastness.

In these examples, the translators replaced “Ernest” with a name that also conveys a virtue that’s closely related to the quality of being earnest- in the target language. 

Here are some translations of a few more beloved book titles!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter va Hofreye Asrara- Farsi/Persian
Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers- French
Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens- German
Harry Potter y la cámara secreta- Spanish

The Hobbit
Bilbo le Hobbit– French
Der Kleine Hobbit– German
Lo Hobbit: O La Riconquista Del Tesoro– Italian
El Hobbit- Spanish

Winnie the Pooh
Pu Der Bar- German
Winnie Puh- Italian

Winnie Ille Pu- Latin
Winny de Puh- Spanish

These titles pose less of a translation challenge than the clever title “The Importance of Being Earnest”, but you can still bet that plenty of thought and research on the part of the translators went into making sure that the translated titles made sense and read well to the target audience. 

Translating Character Names

The handling of proper names between cultures tends to be a toss up between making sense and being somewhat random.  Beloved Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse have straightforward translations into Spanish that make perfect sense.  

  • For El Raton Mickey, “raton” means mouse.
  • For El Pato Donald, “pato” means duck.

But can you guess the Spanish translation for Goofy?  Tribilin.  My intermediate Spanish language knowledge told me that “tribilin” did not mean “dog”, but to be certain- I asked the native Spanish speakers in our office.  The conclusion?  “Tribilin” was not a Spanish word, and might actually have been made up. 

Check out the translation of the names for each of the Seven Dwarves:

  Spanish French Chinese German
Doc Doc Prof Wànshìtōng Chef
Grumpy Gruñón Grincheux Àishēngqì Brummbär
Sleepy Dormilón Dormeur Kēshuìchóng Schlafmütze
Bashful Tímido Timide Hàixiūguǐ Pimpel
Happy Feliz Joyeux Kāixīnguǒ Happy
Sneezy Estornudo Atchoum Pēntìjīng Hatschi
Dopey Tontín Simplet Hútúdàn Seppl

To those of you who are native speakers of any of the 4 languages listed- do these translations make sense for each character?  Let me know in the comments section!   As a Mandarin speaker, I can say that the Chinese translations (in mandarin pinyin format here) fit each character’s name and personality quite well.

Names, as brief in text as they are, are crucial to establishing identity.  That is why it is so important to make sure they translate properly in each target culture.  The translator needs to make sure the translated name reads well, and makes sense to the intended audience.  And as you can see in our many examples, there is no ‘one rule’ translators can use to cover these bases.  A degree of creativity is sometimes involved. 

If you are curious about how we’ve translated names throughout our translation services, feel free to contact us!  

Flora Yu
Flora Yu
Flora was born and raised in New York to parents from Hong Kong and Taiwan. She has a degree in Accounting. She is fluent in Mandarin, and contributes a unique perspective as someone who was raised in 2 different cultures. She finds humor and opportunities to learn as she constantly searches for the balance between the East and West.