How to translate personal names

Translation has many challenges, one of which is the problem of translating proper nouns (PNs), a term used here interchangeably with the term ‘proper names,’ adequately from one language to another. The focus of this study lies within translation of personal names, which are a subclass of proper nouns. Notwithstanding the fact that a challenge that translators often encounter in their work comes from personal names, this paper presents some translation techniques proposed by various researchers in this regard. It should be mentioned that this paper does not intend to prescribe any special rules.
Key words: Personal names, Proper nouns, translation strategies
Generally speaking, nouns are divided into common and proper names. Proper names refer to a specific referent, that is, these names serve to distinguish a particular individual from others, for instance, Peter, Mike, Alice. Common names, on the other hand, refer to a class of individuals such as man, woman, and boy. It is noteworthy that distinction between these types of nouns gets blurred in some cases. Since it is outside the scope of this paper to present a full account of this issue, the present study tackles only personal names, which fall into the proper noun category.
There is no doubt that translating personal names should not be assumed to be an easy issue inasmuch as it can turn out to be very troublesome in practice and needs very sensitive decision-making on the part of the translator within the translation process. A growing body of research shows that different translation procedures are applied in the process of translating personal names.
Albert Peter Vermes (2003) asserts that:

The translation of proper names has often been considered as a simple automatic process of transference from one language into another, due to the view that proper names are mere labels used to identify a person or a thing. Contrary to popular views, the translation of proper names is a non-trivial issue, closely related to the problem of the meaning of the proper name.

Translators do not always use the same strategy for translation of all personal names in all kinds of texts. Personal names in some cases can reveal some information by themselves. The translator’s knowledge of such information can sometimes be very effective in the translation process. In this regard, The Columbia Encyclopedia states that “English surnames developed in the late Middle Ages and, apart from patronymics (Adams, Jefferson), have a variety of origins; they come from places (Lincoln, Garfield) from trades (Tyler, Taylor), from personal traits (Stout, Black), and from the calendar (Noël, May).” In this respect, Mike Campbell (n.d.) states that most surnames fall into four categories: a) they are derived from given names such as Johnson, and Williams; b) they refer to the person’s occupation like Clark, and Wright; c) they are derived from the location where the bearer lives; d) surnames can de derived from nicknames such as White, Young.
All languages have particular personal names, some of which are deeply rooted in the culture of the speakers of the specific language; consequently, they can pose unique difficulties in the comprehension of culture-specific texts. It is interesting to note that some personal names have specific connotations, and omitting this implied information results in unacceptable translation. For example, in the Persian culture, Hatam Taaei—the name of a very generous man in Iranian stories—is a symbol of generosity; accordingly, if a translator, who unaware of this fact, encounters this sentence “My father is Hatam Taaei” in a conversation of two friends talking about their fathers’ characteristics, the translator may erroneously assume that the speaker introduces his or her father’s name, not his personality.
Bachman (1990) specifically points out that the knowledge of cultural references and of the figurative use of language should be considered as a focal element in the translation process. He holds that the readers and listeners need this type of knowledge to make sense of culture-specific names whenever such names occur.
In the case of personal names, there is another point relevant to a peculiarity of some languages; translators must consider the fact that the order of first name and surname is not the same in all languages. In the Korean, Japanese, and Hungarian languages, for example, surname comes before first name, whereas this order is reversed in English, French, and most other Western languages.
The rest of this paper is arranged in three sections: first, the definition of proper name, personal name, and various types of personal names; second, the explanation about some procedures of personal name translation; third, the conclusion.
2. Preliminary Considerations
2.1. Definition of Proper Noun
According to Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, a proper noun is “a word that serves the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about, but not of telling anything about it.”
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the proper noun as “a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English—called also proper name.”
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says that a proper noun (or proper name) is “a word that is the name of a person, a place, an institution, etc. and is written with a capital letter” (p.1016).
A proper noun has these distinctive features in English: 1) It will be capitalized, no matter where it occurs in a sentence. 2) A proper name is a mono-referential name, i.e., it refers to a particular person, thing, or place. 3) It is not regularly preceded by a definite or indefinite article. 4) It is not used with limiting modifiers, like a lot of or any.
2.2. Personal Names
Anna Fornalczyk (2007) states that anthroponymy, the study of the names of human beings, encompasses personal names and group names. She also considers that anthroponymy, in literary works, involves names of personified animals and fictitious creatures, as well.
Wikipedia categorizes personal names into human personal names and non-human personal names. Wikipedia defines human personal name in the following way:

A personal name is the proper name identifying individual person, and usually comprises a given name bestowed at birth or at a young age. It is nearly universal for a human to have a name; the rare exceptions occur in the cases of mentally disturbed parents, or feral children growing up in isolation.

Based on Wikipedia, some humans give individual non-human animals and plants names, usually of endearment. For instance, the names of pets and sporting animals are often the same as human names. Nevertheless, this can be offensive and disrespectful to the person of the same name in some cultures such as the Chinese and the Iranian cultures.
Moreover, Wikipedia mentions that an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that humans are not the only living creatures that use personal names. Researchers from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, studying bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, found that the dolphins had personal names for one another. In this case, the interesting point is that a dolphin chooses its name as an infant.
The World Book Encyclopedia talks about personal name in this way:

Practically everyone since the beginning of history has had a name (…) Almost all names have meanings. Early people bestowed a name with a definite consciousness of its meaning (…). But today, people give little thought to the meanings. Most people have a given name and family name. Many also have a middle name, and some have a nickname” (vol.14, p.5).

Mike Campbell (n.d.) states that a personal name is a name that belongs to a person. He categorizes personal names in the following way:
* Given name / first name / Christian name / praenomen / middle name
* Family name / surname / last name / nomen / cognomen
* Nickname / agnomen / pet name / diminutive / byname
* Generation name
Patronym / matronym / filiation
2.3. Definitions of types of Personal Names
With this section, the author attempts to approach the concept of different types of personal name in order to delimit the object of the study. It is important to stress that not all types of personal names exist in all languages. Moreover, the translator must take cognizance of these different categories, since familiarity with them helps in the translation process.
In relation to the translation of personal names, translators should take this point into consideration whether or not it is possible or necessary to show that these classifications are different in the source and target languages.
As mentioned previously, Campbell (n.d.) divides personal names into various categories. He defines them as follows:
Type of Personal Name
1. Given name
A given name is a name that is assumed by a person at or after birth. As opposed to a family name, it is generally not inherited.
2. First name or Christian name
In Europe and North America, where the given name precedes the family name, given names are called first names or forenames.
3. Praenomen
The praenomen (plural praenomina) was the ancient Roman given name. With a nomen and a cognomen it formed a complete Roman name. In Roman documents the praenomen was often abbreviated to one or two letters.
4. Middle name
In the English-speaking world, the middle name is a secondary given name. When the full name is presented, it is placed between the first name and the surname. People can have more than one middle name, though it is unusual to have none.
Many people include their middle name as an initial in their usual name, for example George W. Bush. Others prefer their middle name and use it instead of their first name.
5. Family name or last name or surname
It is a name passed from one generation to the next. In many cultures a woman adopts her husband’s family name when they are married.
6. Nomen
The nomen (plural nomina) was the Roman gens’s (that is clan’s) name. In the typical Roman name it was preceded by the praenomen and followed by the cognomen
7. Cognomen
The cognomen (plural cognomina) was one of the three parts of the typical Roman name. It followed the praenomen and nomen. Originally cognomina were nicknames, but by the time of the Roman Empire they were inherited from father to son. Thus the cognomen in combination with the nomen functioned as a surname, breaking families into smaller groups than just the nomen alone.
8. Nickname
A nickname is a substitute for a person’s real name. It may be used because it is more familiar, more descriptive, or shorter than the real name. For example, Sue is the nickname of Susan.
9. Agnomen
The agnomen (plural agnomina) formed an additional part of some Roman names, usually following the cognomen. Usually they were nicknames acquired at some point during the lifetime, but, rarely, some agnomnia were inherited.
10. Pet name
A pet name of a given name is a short and/or affectionate form. Often they are only used by friends and relatives.
11. Diminutive
It is the same as a pet name. They can be formed through various methods in different languages. Two of most typical ways in English are presented here: a) are those that are short forms of the original name, very often from the first syllable or sound of the name. For example, Alex is from Alexander; b) they can also obtained by adding a suffix, to the original name or short form of a name. In English, the -y/-ie suffix make diminutives such as, Debbie, Charlie, Johnny, and Abby.
12. Byname
A byname is a secondary name used to further identify a person. They were often nicknames (for example Erik the Red) or patronyms (for example John, son of William). Bynames can be considered surnames when they are inherited from one generation to the next.
13. Generation name
The generation name is used by some Chinese and Korean families. It is a name given to all newborns of the same generation of an extended family.
14. Patronym
A patronym (or patronymic) is a name derived from the name of the father or another paternal ancestor. Some surnames are patronymic in origin, like Peterson = “Peter’s son”. Some cultures, such as Iceland, use uninherited patronyms instead of surnames.
15. Matronym
A matronym (also matronymic) is a name derived from the name of the mother or another maternal ancestor.
16. Filiation
A filiation attached to a name describes the bearer’s paternal descent. The complete Roman name sometimes had a filiation.
Table 1. Types of Personal Name (adopted from
3. How to Translate Personal Names?
Personal names often constitute a major problem in translation. For translating proper nouns, different models are suggested. In this respect, seven models presented by Hervey and Higgins (1986), Newmark (1988), Theo Hermans (1988), Farzane Farahzad (1995), Anthony Pym (2004), Lincoln Fernandes (2006), and Heikki Särkkä (2007) will be defined here.
1. Hervey and Higgins (1986) present these strategies for translating PNs :
* Exotism: The name should remain unchanged from the SL to the TL. In this method no cultural transposition is occurred (p.29).
* Transliteration: The name is shifted to conform to the phonic or graphic rules of the TL (p.29).
* Cultural transplantation: The SL name is replaced by the TL name that has the same cultural connotation as the original one (p.29).
2. Peter Newmark (1988b) holds that people’s names should, as a rule, not be translated when their names have no connotation in the text (p.214). He adds some exceptions such as names of known saints, monarchs, and popes, which are known in the translated form in the TL (p.214).
Newmark (1988a) also recommends that, in communicative translation, a personal name, along with its connotation, should be translated where proper names are treated connotatively (p.151). In spite of that, the PNs must be transferred in semantic translation (p.151).
In addition, with regard to names that have connotations in the imaginative literature such as in comedies, allegories, fairy tales, and some children’s stories, Newmark recommends that they be translated. He adds that the previous rule should be followed unless, like in folk tales, nationality is a significant aspect.
In cases where both nationality and connotation are significant aspects, the most appropriate method, in Newmark’s opinion, is first to translate the name to the TL, then to naturalize the translated word into a new proper name provided that the personal name is not yet current among the educated readers of the TL (p.215).
3. Theo Hermans (1988) believes that there are at least four strategies for translation of names. He phrases them,
“They can be copied, i.e. reproduced in the target text exactly as they were in the source text. They can be transcribed, i.e. transliterated or adapted on the level of spelling, phonology, etc. A formally unrelated name can be substituted in the target text for any given name in the source text. And insofar as a name in a source text is enmeshed in the lexicon of that language and acquires ‘meaning,’ it can be translated” (p.13).
Hermans contends that some other alternatives are also possible, namely various combinations of the above methods, omitting the source text (ST) proper name in the target text (TT), substitution of a common name in the TT for the PN in the ST, the insertion of the PN in the TT while no PN exists in the ST (p.14).
4. Farzanne Farahzad (1995) states that transliteration and transcription are used for translation of personal proper names. The latter is the replacement of one letter of the alphabet in the source language (SL) by another letter in the target language (TL). The former occurs when the letter of the target language shows the pronunciation of the PN in the source language (p.43).
She expounds that transcription suffers from the following defects:
* There are no established rules for transcription.
* The transcription of personal names varies on the basis of various accents such as American and British.
* The transcription may be influenced by the translator’s pronunciation, which may lead to an incorrect transcription.
* The exact transcription of personal names is not always possible; that is, all languages do not have the same consonants or vowels.
* The pronunciation of personal names’ transcription is more difficult than that of their translation (pp.43-44).
In view of the foregoing reasons, she concludes that transliteration is a better strategy to be used by translators (p.44).
5. Anthony Pym (2004) proposes that proper names not be translated (p.92).
He also defines the result of transliteration operations as ‘absolute equivalence’ in that it results in the exact quantitative equality between input and output (p.90). In his view, the most problematic aspect of ‘absolute equivalence’ is that it is often unacceptable equivalence, unless much language learning is involved. In this regard, Pym contends that alternatives are imperative (p.92).
6. Lincoln Fernandes (2006) lists a set of ten procedures in the translation of personal names as follows:
* Rendition: When the in the ST is enmeshed in the TL, the meaning is rendered in the TL. For example, translating the word ‘Lady’ as ‘Mulher,’ which means ‘woman’ in Brazilian Portuguese, reveals that the translator has used a ‘superordinate’ (woman) instead of a hyponym of woman, a specific word such as ‘senhora’ or ‘dama’ (= lady).
* Copy: As a matter of fact, in this case, the name of the ST is exactly replicated in the TT—without any orthographic adjustment. As an illustration, Alice King is reproduced in the Arabic text—which has a different alphabet from English one-with no change.
* Transcription: This a method in which a name is transcribed in the equivalent characters of the TL. In order to keep the readability of the TT, some other changes such as addition or shift in the position of the letters may occur e.g. Ahoshta Tarkaan is changed to Achosta Tarcaã.
* Re-creation: A newly-created name in the ST is recreated in the TT so that it reproduces the similar effects in the TL such as Mr. Ollivander that is translated to Sr. Olivares.
* Substitution: A TL name replaces the SL name, although they are formally and/or semantically unrelated.
* Deletion: In this type of strategy, the name in the ST is, partially or totally, omitted in the TT.
* Addition: Extra information is added to the SL name so that it can be more understandable and desirable to the target readers. As a matter of fact, this method may also be used to remove ambiguities in the TT.
* Transposition: This is a change of one part of speech for another one without any shift in the meaning. In fact, this a way for translating titles that have transparent role in literature for identifying particular literary works. Because of this reason, this procedure is taken into consideration here.
* Phonological Replacement: In this procedure, the phonological features of the original name are imitated in the TL. In other words, a TL name, which has a similar sound to the SL name, replaces the original name.
* Conventionality: This strategy is defined as the acceptance of a typical translation of a name in the SL. In view of this case, it is interesting to know that conventionality is often used with historical or literary individuals as well as geographical names.
7. Heikki Särkkä (2007) reports that there are four strategies for translating PNs;
* They can be transported completely from the TL to the SL (allowance being made for possible transliteration or transcription, depending on the SL).
* They can be partly transported from the SL and partly translated.
* They can be replaced with more or less different names in the TL.
* They can be dispensed with altogether.
4. Conclusion
Generally, personal names represent a real challenge for both professional and novice translators; therefore, they merit attention from researchers and scholars in the field of translation studies. Newmark (1993) reports that proper names, which include personal names, represent a translation difficulty in different text types (p.15).
Being familiar with the culture, translators sometimes can infer some implied information such as gender, nationality, race, class, or religion from personal names. It is clear that translators must be familiar with culture of both the source and target languages, since awareness of these culture-bound names can lead to the most appropriate translation. Based on the foregoing information, it is significant to stress that the influence of culture on translation of personal names is undeniable.
Different translation procedures for translating personal names have been presented. In general, it should be noted that translators do not always use the same strategy for translation of all personal names in all kinds of texts. For example, Farahzad (1995) believes that translators should use transcription and transliteration techniques when translating personal names; however, translators of religious texts must use the most common existing equivalent of a personal name in the TL even if these equivalents do not follow the foregoing translation strategies.
Having briefly discussed some of the translation procedures in this respect, the author strongly recommends that whatever strategies translators use, especially in scientific texts, they should mention the original name with the SL alphabets in the footnotes or endnotes in order to facilitate further research for readers in the target language.
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Behnaz Sanaty Pour is a freelance translator and an English teacher in various English schools. She received her B.M. in Translation Studies from Payame Nour University, Mobarake Branch, Iran. Currently, she is an M.A. student in Translation Studies in Islamic Azad University, Shahreza Branch. Her areas of interest are translation studies, interpretation, translation theories, pragmatics, and discourse analysis.More important, she is really interested in cultural translation. She can be available at bsanatypour at yahoo com.

This article is originally published at Translation Journal (