The topic of geographical names translation is a complicated one. Simply type ‘translating’ and ‘place names’ in your favourite search engine, and you’ll see that translators around the globe keep wondering what to do.

However, rather than exploring the ins and outs of the issue (Gilberto Castañeda-Hernández’s article provides a good starting point for any discussion on the topic), we thought we’d give you some insight into how this issue is dealt with at TTS. Very often, the problem arises when we translate official documents such as birth and marriage certificates into foreign languages.

Let’s take the example of a birth certificate. The person was born at the National Women’s Hospital in Auckland. Translating ‘National Women’s Hospital’ would be quite straight-forward, but does that mean that it should be translated?

When faced with an issue like this, we recommend doing some research to find out whether there is an existing translation that is widely used, or if usage dictates that the name should remain in English. For instance, place names like the Buckingham Palace or the Red Square have existing translations in French (‘le palais de Buckingham’, ‘la place rouge’); on the other hand, Times Square doesn’t and remains in English.

Some marriage certificates will state the place of marriage as being a natural reserve, a national park or a specific beach in the Coromandel. First of all you will need to check if the place indicated is a name per se. If it is, check whether there is an existing translation. As an example, my marriage certificate reads ‘Off Round the Mountain Track, Rangipo Desert, Tongariro National Park’. If we were to translate it into French (which we will have to do at some point), ‘Round the Mountain Track’ would remain in English, but ‘Rangipo Desert’ and ‘Tongariro National Park’ could potentially be translated into French as existing translations are already in use.

There is no straight answer when it comes down to translating place names. Looking back at the birth certificate mentioned earlier, ‘National Women’s Hospital’ is most likely going to remain in English if I had to translate the document into French. That being said, if we had to translate the same birth certificate into German, we may choose to translate ‘National Women’s Hospital’ if that is what German usage dictates.

Following usage in the target language is indeed what TTS recommends as it will enable to explain what led you to choose one option over another, and it will ensure that the translation meets the client’s requirements.

Stefan