April 4, 2023 by Alison Tunley
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Adlam – the story of a new alphabet
Most of the world’s alphabets are at least a thousand years old and we often take them for granted. The first alphabet is thought to be the Proto-Sinaitic script, which is the ancestor of most modern alphabets including… Read More
The trouble with being a linguist is that your familiarity with the source language can sometimes distract you from conventions in the target language. Or at least that’s my excuse when faced with translating place names. I instinctively want to resist removing the umlaut on Zürich to create a more anglicised version, and I’m never convinced by converting Rheinland-Pfalz to the English Rhineland-Palatinate, or Nordrhein-Westfalen into North Rhine-Westphalia.
The original foreign names seem more elegant to me, but translation clients may disagree. Sometimes there is a very well-established anglicised name that makes the translator’s decision straightforward. Only the truly pretentious would render Copenhagen as København or Gothenburg as Göteborg, and clearly Munich is a much more standard choice in English texts than the original München.
But the examples I gave initially are not so clear. How many English readers have any familiarity with Rhineland-Palatinate? And when it comes to choosing between Zürich and Zurich, for example, the Guardian has the umlauted version in an article about urban swimming and the anglicised non-umlauted spelling in a piece about Switzerland’s “chocolate capital”. Anything goes it seems!
Then there are places that have two or three names, such as the German, French and Italian options in some Swiss locations. Sometimes the English translator is faced with a situation where the French name is arguably more common in English than the German. For example, Lucerne is probably more widely used in English texts than the German Luzern. At least these two choices are mutually intelligible; more caution is required for tourism texts where the hapless visitor might arrive at their destination blissfully unaware that Bodensee and Lake Constance refer to the same body of water. Often the best solution is to provide the original and a translation.
And in multilingual locations, the translator may have to choose which of the local languages to favour, or whether to list all the possible options a tourist might encounter. A recent tourism project promoting the joys of the Dolomites featured double options for almost every location in Italian and German, with places such as Bolzano/Bozen, Bressanone/Brixen, Castelrotto/Kastelruth and Europe’s highest alpine meadow Alpe di Siusi/Seiser Alm. Just to spice things up even further, some places have an additional name in the local Ladin language, a Romance language still spoken by about 30,000 inhabitants in the region. Fans of the BBC’s long-running Ski Sunday program may be familiar with the popular Dolomite tourist destination known in Italian as Val Gardena, which becomes Gröden in German and Gherdëina in Ladin. Whatever option you choose whether translating place names or leaving the original, wanderlust is guaranteed.
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