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Proper Names and Translation

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Samira Mizani photo Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, defines proper name in the following way:

"Proper name is a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about, but not of telling anything about it."

This encyclopedia proposes three theories related to proper names namely Descriptive theory, Referential theory, and Causal theory of names.

The descriptive theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a proper name is a set of properties that can be expressed as a description picking out an object that satisfies the description. According to the descriptivist theory of meaning, there is a description of the sense of proper names which picks out the bearer of the name like a definition. The distinction between the embedded description and the bearer itself is similar to the distinction between the extension and the intension of a general term, or between connotation and denotation.

As it is stated in Wikipedia, the extension of a general term like "dog" is just all the dogs that are out there; the extension is what the word can be used to refer to. The intension of a general term is basically a description of what all dogs have in common; it's what the definition expresses.

The difficulty with the descriptive theory is what the description corresponds to. there must be some essential characteristic of the bearer; otherwise we can use the name and deny the bearer's having such a characteristic.

According to this wikipedia the causal theory of names combines the referential view with the idea that the name's referent is fixed by a baptismal act. Here the name becomes a rigid designator of the referent.

Crystal (1997), called the science that studies names as onomastics (Greek onomastikos from onoma 'name'), which is usually divided into the study of personal names (anthroponomastics from Greek anthropos 'human being') and place names (toponomastics from Greek topos 'place'). As he stated, the term onomastics is used to refer to personal names and toponomastics to place names. He considered this division an arbitrary one, as places can be named after people (e.g. Alberta in Canada is named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta) and vice versa (e.g. Israel is also used as a first name).

Matthews (1997) stated that the special nature of names is often described in terms of the differences between proper nouns and common nouns. Proper noun is interpreted here as "the name of a specific individual or of a set of individuals distinguished only by their having that name." A common noun, on the other hand, is a name whose "application is not restricted to arbitrarily distinguished members of a class." For instance, a goblin or a horse is a common noun that may be used in reference to any individual characterizable in general as a goblin or a horse.

 Kiviniemi (1982) regarded name-giving principles to be, to some extent, universal phenomena in different language areas, but he also believed in large cultural differences between the function and use of personal names in Western language cultures and Eastern traditions. According to him, not only the name forms and functions but also the ideas about names and naming might differ from one culture to another.

The Finnish scholar in Onomastics Eero Kiviniemi (1982) and Hanks and Hodges (1990 ) introduced anthroponymy as an established and approved system of personal names in every language, which the speakers of that language easily recognize as conventional names belonging to the system of ordinary names. According to them proper names are, to some degree, culturally and linguistically specific although some names and name forms are universal, which means that one and the same name (name form) is used in more than one language. For example first names originating from biblical persons (Christian names) and saints are the most widespread; other historical persons have been influential too.

According to the Finish scholar Vilkuna (1990) and lomqvist (1993), from a cultural point of view, names used in literature and names in general interact with each other to some extent. According to them a proper name coined for the purpose of a literary piece of work can affect the popularity and adoption of new names into the calendar, for example, Wendy as a name from works of literature is occasionally used for real individuals. This can be illustrated in Persian literature: names like Sohrab and Esfandiyar.

Kiviniemi (1982) judged the criterion of the uniqueness of personal names as questionable due to the fact that several different persons can have not only the same first name but also the same family name. Consequently, the combination of first name and family name is not a hundred-percent unique element. As this onomastic scholar pointed out, the traditional view has been that a first name is more individualizing, even though some first names are much more common than many family names. First names are usually regarded as main names; family names originally belonged to the category of additional names. First names can still be chosen quite freely whereas we traditionally receive our family name by inheritance.

He also added that personal names are connected to language use and according to our general onomastic knowledge. It's not difficult to distinguish conventional names from common nouns or other proper names even when they are not within a context. Proper names differ from common nouns not only orthographically and referentially, but also morphosyntactically and semantically.

According to Kiviniemi (1975), the only function of proper names is identification. Names are linguistic marks that function only according to their established denotative function (which is the relationship between the word and the referent). He confirmed that, from this point of view, names' possible descriptive meaning is totally irrelevant. Still, if a word is proprialized from a homonymic appellative, the speaker and the hearer must somehow be able to distinguish them from each other; otherwise the proper name would lose its function of identification. (Kiviniemi 1975.)

Yvonne Bertills (2004) stated that just like objects, artifacts and domestic animals, it is difficult for individual beings to exist without some kind of identifying label such as a name. In her idea although names are carefully considered before being chosen for the name-bearer, a proper content or effect of the name on the name-bearer is not as significant later.

Regarding features of the actual cultural origin of personal names, Yvonne Bertills (2004) think it is not always easy, or even relevant, to find out the exact origin or of the development of names culturally and linguistically. On the other hand, she noted that the phonetic form of a name determines and limits the name to be culturally specific and she confirmed that names are rather easily associated with certain cultures; for example, as she illustrated, Eric with English, Erik (from Eerik) with Swedish and Erkki with Finnish. According to her, naming or the necessity of naming is a universal characteristic of most cultures.

Nord (2003) defined name as the word(s) by which an individual referent is identified, that is to say, the word(s) whose main function is/are to identify, for instance, an individual person, animal, place, or thing. She continues by stating that in this sense, names possess a certain deictic quality in that they point directly to a single, concrete referent; however, sometimes they may also acquire a semantic load which takes them "beyond the singular mode of signification." Therefore, names are viewed as mono-referential—they refer to a single entity—but not as mono-functional, since they may function as carriers of semantic, semiotic, and/or sound symbolic meanings in literary works. Nord (2003) has pointed out just a quick glance at translated texts can reveal that translators do all sorts of things with names; such as substitute, transcribe and omit them.

In highlighting the problems concerning the translation of names, scholars like Davies (2003) usually subsume the issue under a discussion of culture-specific references, where names are seen as culture-specific items (CSIs) and as such are approached in terms of the complexity of translating cultural patterns. Nord believes that although the issue of cultural specificity in the translation of names is undeniable, there are also other aspects of names that should be considerere when translating them.

Christiane Nord (2003) also stated that in the real world, proper names may be non-descriptive, but they are obviously not non-informative: If we are familiar with the culture in question, a proper name can tell us whether the referent is a female or male person (Alice—Bill), maybe even about their geographical origin within the same language community or their age. She explained this by stating that some people name their new-born child after a pop star or a character of a film that happens to be fasionable.

Regarding geographical names, she stated that they often have specific forms in other languages (exonyms), which may differ not only in pronunciation, but also with respect to morphology and lexical entities. According to her some are translated literally and other back to ancient Latin forms.

Nord (2003) considered no specific rule for the translation of proper names. She argues that in non-fictional texts, it seems to be a convention to use the target-culture exonym of a source-culture name, if there is one, but if a translator prefers to use the source-culture form, she is free to do so as long as it is clear to what place does the name refer to. Nord stated that in this way perhaps the audience will think that the translator is showing off her knowledge. She acknowledged that wherever the function of the proper name is limited to identifying an individual referent, the main criterion for translation will be to make this identifying function work for the target audience.

Regarding translation of proper names in fiction Nord (2003), maintained that in fiction, things are not quite as simple as it may seem. We have assumed that in fictional texts there is no name that has no informative function at all. According to her, if this information is explicit, as in a descriptive name, it can be translated—although a translation may interfere with the function of a culture marker. If the information is implicit, however, or if the marker function has priority over the informative function of the proper name, she maintained that this aspect will be lost in the translation, unless the translator decides to compensate for the loss by providing the information in the context.

She insisted that there are proper names that exist in the same form both in the source and the target culture. But this causes other problems: The character changes "nationality" just because the name is pronounced in a different way. She illustrated this by the case of English Richard which thus turns into a German Richard, and a French Robert into an English Robert—which may interfere with the consistency of the setting if some names are "bicultural" and others are not. Nord stated an example of a little comic strip which she translated with her students in the Spanish-German translation class, the two characters, brothers, are called Miguelito and Hugo. Nord urged that if we leave the names as they are, Miguelito will be clearly recognizable as a Spanish boy in the translation, whereas Hugo may be identified as a German. Then she suggested that in order to avoid the impression that this is a bicultural setting, the translator would have to either substitute Miguelito by a clearly German name or replace Hugo by a typical Spanish name, depending on whether the text is intended to appeal to the audience as "exotic" or "familiar."

She considered this kind of problem very common in the translation of children's books, especially if there is a pedagogical message underlying the plot. A story set in the receiver's own cultural world allows for identification, whereas a story set in a strange, possibly exotic world may induce the reader to stay "at a distance."

Nord also explained the role of descriptive names in fiction. According to her, apart from names typically denoting a particular kind of referent, like pet names, the authors of fictions sometimes use names which explicitly describe the referent in question ("descriptive names"). She exemplified this by a case in a Spanish novel in which the protagonist is called Don Modesto or Doña Perfecta. As she stated the readers will understand the name as a description of the character, since Don is an honorific title.

Nord also discussed about cultural makers in fiction. She stated that in some cultures, there is the convention that fictional proper names can serve as "culture markers," i.e., they implicitly indicate to which culture the character belongs. In German literature, as her example, if a woman called Joséphine appears in a story with a plot set in Germany, she will automatically be assumed to be French. On the contrary, in Spanish literature, proper names are more generally adapted to Spanish morphology.

Nord (2003) stated that there are times when copy cannot be interpreted as a procedure based on adequacy in the case of "bicultural" names where the same name form exists in both source and target cultures (e.g. Portuguese: Jane, English: Jane). Moreover, in the case of transcription, there are names that, despite being transcribed in order to conform to the phonological and morphological conventions of the target language, continue sounding alien to the target audience and recognized as not belonging to the target cultural setting. Therefore, an effect of adequacy may be achieved by either preserving a foreign name, or by creating a new name not present in the source text, and while the addition of some explicit clarification of a name may make the target text more accessible, so may the deletion of this particular name. In view of this, Davies (2003) has already observed that there seems to be no clear correlation between the use of a particular procedure and the degree of adequacy or acceptability obtained in the target text.

From the translational perspective, Hermans (1988) broadly divided names into two categories (i) conventional names and (ii) loaded names. Conventional names are those seen as 'unmotivated' for translation, since they apparently do not carry a semantic load; their morphology and phonology do not need to be adapted to that of the target language system; or perhaps because they have acquired an international status. Loaded names, which are those seen as 'motivated' for translation, range from faintly 'suggestive' to overtly 'expressive' names and nicknames. They include those fictional and non-fictional names in which historical and cultural inferences can be made on the basis of the 'encyclopedic knowledge' available to the interlocutors of a particular culture. The distinction between them is one of degree: expressive names link with the lexicon of the language. The semantic load of the expressive names is more in evidence than in the case of suggestive' names. Hermans (1988) introduced at least four ways of rendering names from one language into another: 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. (Hermans 1988).

Hermans goes on to explain that various combinations of these "modes of transfer" are possible and that deletion of a source-text name or the insertion of a new one is also a possible translation procedure. These different ways of translating names are interpreted by Hermans in terms of the relationship between Target Text (TT) and Source Text (ST) along two poles of a continuum: adequacy vs. acceptability. According to Toury (1995), a translation is termed adequate when the translator makes an attempt to follow source rather than target linguistic and literary norms. On the other hand, a translation is termed acceptable when the translator has adhered to those norms of the target system. In this respect, Toury enlightened that when translators copy a foreign name into the TL text they are apparently privileging adequacy, and when they transcribe or substitute a foreign name in the translated text they are apparently favoring acceptability.

Concerning the translation of proper names Newmark (1988) stated that, they are normally transferred in order to preserve nationality, assuming the proper names have no connection to the text.

Newmark pointed that regarding names that have connotations in imaginative literature like comedies, allegories, fairy tales and some children's stories, procedure of translation should be taken into account, unless nationality is important as in folk tales.

If both nationality and connotation of proper name is important, Newmark suggested that at first the name should be translated into target language then the translated word should be naturalized into a new proper name.

Verónica Albin (2003) in her article with the title of "what is in a name" stated that if a translator wants his target language text to be accepted and understood by its readers, he must behave in accordance with what is expected and meaningful in the target culture. She, in her studying proper names, wanted to be able to write a prescriptive article offering solutions for translation of proper names. What she found, instead, were not rules, but conventions. According to her conventions are arbitrary, in the sense that in other times, another behavior could well have been the norm. Conventions are also diachronically interchangeable, because sometimes fads overlap. She stated that this explains why we may find two texts in Spanish published around the same time, one referring to the author of Das Kapital as Carlos Marx and the other as Karl Marx.

She also explicated that for a very long time it had been fashionable to translate proper names in order to 'naturalize' them; but as, according to her, the current trend in most Western languages, perhaps due to the immediacy of global communication, is to not translate them.

Albert Peter Vermes (2003), in his article entitled "proper name in translation" demonstrated that contrary to popular views, the translation of proper names is a non-trivial question, and it is closely related to the problem of the meaning of the proper name.

In his research regarding translation of proper names particularly from English into Hungarian, Peter Vermes first he introduced four basic operations for translating a proper name: transference, translation proper, substitution and modification. The paper presents a case study, which attempt to explain the treatment of proper names in the translation of J. F. Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. His analysis is based on the assumption that translation is a special form of communication, aimed at establishing interpretive resemblance between the source text and the target text. The findings seem to confirm the claim that proper names behave in a largely predictable way in translation: the particular operations chosen to deal with them are a function, partly, of the semantic content they are loaded with in the source context and, partly, of considerations of how this content may be preserved in the target communication situation, including elements like the specific audience, intertextual relationships and translation norms.

Lincoln Fernandes (2006), in his paper about translating names discusses the translation of names in children's fantasy literature and highlights the importance of names in translating this particular text type. First, he defines what it is meant by "names" and attempts to present some of the most important types of "meanings" usually conveyed by names. Then, he discusses the issue of readability in the translation of these narrative elements. Next, building on Hermans's (1988) ways of rendering names from L1 to L2, it offers a classification of ten translation procedures that were identified in the Portuguese-English Parallel Corpus of Children's Fantasy Literature, namely PEPCOCFL.

The following is a set of ten procedures in the translation of names proposed by Lincoln Fernandes (2006):

1- Rendition

This is a "coincidental" procedure and is used when the name is transparent or semantically motivated and is in standardized language, that is, when the name in a source text is trapped in the lexicon of that language, thus acquiring "meaning" should be rendered in the target language.

2- Copy

He confirmed that his procedure bears resemblance to Vinay and Darbelnet's (1995) concept of "borrowing" as the simplest type of translation. In this procedure, the names are reproduced in the translated text exactly as they appear in the source text without suffering any sort of orthographic adjustment. From a phonological perspective, however, Nord (2003) points out that these names often acquire a different pronunciation in the TL. For example, in the name Artemis, which is the name of the Greek Goddess of Hunt, the stress is placed on the second syllable in Brazilian Portuguese [ar'temis] and on the first syllable in British English ['a:temIs]. Therefore, despite being copied, these names often acquire a different character in the target context.

3- Transcription

Fernandes (2006) described this as a procedure in which an attempt is made to transcribe a name in the closest-sounding letters of a different target alphabet. In other words, this procedure occurs when a name is transliterated or adapted at the level of morphology, phonology, grammar, etc., usually to conform to the target language system. In this procedure the translator may suppress, add, and changed the position of letters, probably as a way to preserve the readability of the text in the TL context.

4- Substitution

Fernandes (2006) stated that in this type of procedure, a formally and/or semantically unrelated name is a substitute in the target text for any existent name in the source text. In other words, the TL name and the SL name exist in their respective referential worlds, but are not related to each other in terms of form and/or semantic significance.

5- Recreation

This type of procedure consists of recreating an invented name in the SL text into the TL text, thus trying to reproduce similar effects of this newly-created referent in another target cultural setting. Fernandes (2006) noted that recreation differs from substitution in the sense that in recreation the lexical item does not exist in the SL or in the TL.

6- Deletion

Fernandes considered this procedure as rather a drastic way of dealing with lexical items, but even so it has been often used by translators.

According to him deletion (Ø) as a translation procedure involves removing a source-text name or part of it in the target text. It usually occurs when such names are apparently of little importance to the development of the narrative, and are not relevant enough for the effort of comprehension required for their readers.

7- Addition

Fernandes considered this procedure as the one in which extra information is added to the original name, making it more comprehensible or perhaps more appealing to its target audience. Sometimes it is used to solve ambiguities that might exist in the translation of a particular name.

8- Transposition

This procedure is defined as the replacement of one word class with another without changing the meaning of the original message. Fernandes (2006) stated that for Chesterman (1997), this procedure also involves structural changes, "but it is often useful to isolate the word-class change as being of interest in itself"

9- Phonological Replacement

Fernandes (2006) defined this as a procedure in which a TT name attempts to mimic phonological features of a ST name by replacing the latter with an existing name in the target language which somehow invokes the sound image of the SL name being replaced. He notified that phonological Replacement must not be confused with transcription. The latter involves adaptation of a SL name to the phonology/morphology of a target language while the former involves the replacement of a SL name with a TL name which is phonemically/graphologically analogous to it.

Bertills (2004) pointed that the traditional viewpoints of proper names have defined names as including denotative meaning but not connotative meaning:

"Proper names are not connotative: they denote the individuals who are called by them; but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as belonging to those individuals. When we name a child by the name "Paul" or a dog by the name "Caesar," these names are simply marks used to enable those individuals to be made subjects of discourse."

Regarding conventional personal names, Yvonne Bertills (2004) pointed that the consideration of signifier-signified is somewhat simplified: as proper names are usually considered to be meaningless, there is a direct relationship between the sign (signifier) and the referent, without the level of concept (signified). That is, the signifier does not evoke any idea (signified) of the referent. Bertills stated that according to the onomastic scholars since a proper name is a sign formed according to the phonetic criteria of individual languages, it contains a sign, which transparently denotes a referent. Bertills continues by pointing out that the question concerns whether the name also contains a concept level

Yvonne Bertills (2004) stated that the situation of literary proper names will be different due to the fact that the narrative affects not only the relationship between the signifier and what it actually signifies but also the relationship between the sign and the referent. If we consider meaning in purely linguistic terms, the lexical meaning of a word can be defined as the idea or the concept that the word brings to mind or that is connected to it.

According to her many of the proper names in literature are formed, or selected, taking the characteristics of the name-bearer in mind. In addition to acknowledging the fact that a name in literature denotes an individual being, its connection to the lexicon supplies direct meanings in the literary context. Studying the morphological and syntactic form of the name in its context will supply information about the criteria of and the intended functions in the literary context.

Yvonne Bertills (2004), proposed the following categorization regarding proper names in fiction:

  1. Conventional personal names, including first names and/or family names that belong to the general anthroponomy. This category includes only names that are found as such in the general name register and which cannot be defined as suggesting any characteristic traits of the name-bearer.

    She made a distinction between completely conventional names and modified conventional names which refers to names that are clearly derived from conventional names (first names or family names). These are names which include elements that can be transparently traced back to ordinary names, or whose orthographic form is modified from conventional names.
  2. Invented names or coined names which are semantically loaded and are formed or invented for the purpose of a certain narrative context. Most of these names are clearly or unclearly semantically loaded, or have a clearly discernable origin. In this regard, Raivo (2001) distinguishes between invented or names derived from other words and imaginary names. She used the term imaginary names with reference to names that have no transparent semantic content, that is, they do not include already existing word forms. They are still coined for a specific narrative context.
  3. Classic names (also historical, universal or literary names) contain a universal content, that is, the name is associated with certain characteristics independently of cultural or linguistic context. For instance, the classic names of literary characters Hamlet. She stated that these are not conventional and do not have any noticeable meaning.

Yvonne Bertills (2004) considers conventional proper names to partly suggest a kind of meaning for the name bearer in terms of their cultural belonging; the name form may already cast some light on the age of the name-bearer. As she stated, it is true that when an ordinary conventional personal name appears in isolation, it does not have any meaning in the same way that a common noun does, yet it still awaken certain ideas about the referent's cultural belonging and sex in our mind providing we have the relevant knowledge of the world, social and cultural background and experience. If already familiar with the referent, and also within a specific communication context (which gives further contextual information), a name will automatically be more charged with meanings. She concluded that for the consideration of the semantics of personal names the knowledge of the world and the knowledge of language are two separate concepts, which are also largely individual.

John R. Searle (1958) argued that reference by means of proper names includes the use of descriptive information about the referent. In other words, for conventional names, the context is the supplier of meanings, whereas the name only denotes the referent.

According to him for names in literature, the context will have further implications on the consideration of meaning and names. Although the context supplies information about the referent, it will never affect the denotative relationship between some proper names and their referents. In this regard Nikolajeva (1998), mentioned the example of Tarzan or Robinson which are literary characters and also the symbols for certain behavior. According to him, changes on a time scale must also be acknowledged and considered as the meaning of names is involved not only with language and words but also with world knowledge in general.

Sciarone (1968) noted that in some respects, the aspect of time is also relevant for the consideration of the content of names, which means that the information that is supplied about the referent changes and develops over time. This is partly true for personal names; the more we get to know about a particular person, the more the information or descriptions affect the way we respond to that particular proper name in the future. He stated that this is evident in the names of famous persons, which—although the original referent is dead and buried—have become 'concepts', and which are always associated with certain characteristics or certain behavior in any context, for example, Hitler. In this regard Hanks and Hodges (1996) pointed out that not only historical persons, but also literature and movies may produce such names.

Kiviniemi (1982) stated that many ordinary names have had meaning in the language of origin, but since they enter into new languages and cultures over the years, the original meanings are gradually lost. Kiviniemi clarified his statement by an example of a female name: Maria. Maria has originally meant "awaited child." The original meaning of this name is not significant today.

Kiviniemi (1982) considered two functions of proper names: first, to distinguish the individual and second, to function as a kind of magnet for other meanings. Kiviniemi also declared that the scope of meaning in common nouns is wider and more general, whereas the characteristics of proper names are narrowed down to more specific characteristics. On a pragmatic level, he stated, one needs more information to understand the meaning (who and what the referent is like) of a proper name, whereas one understands common nouns by convention.

Kiviniemi (1982) acknowledged that a name may be completely transparent on the level of word semantics but may have various meanings from the point of view of name semantics. In other words, name elements can be completely understood from a lexical point of view but unless considered in relation to the denoted referent, the name-giving or name-selection criteria are not clarified. Kiviniemi pointed that the relationship between a name and a referent is usually called denotation; the name element means or equals its referent, and nothing more.

In addition to all what the scholars stated, Yvonne Bertills (2004) considered names as a largely a terminological question. According to her, the study of names and meaning is often largely a question of terminology and definitions, for instance, lexical meaning, contextual meaning, connotation, and information content.


Albin, V. (2003), " What is in a name", Translation Journal.V(7).N(4)

Bertills, Y. (2004). Beyond Identification.

Fernandes, L.( 2006). " Translation of Names in Children's Fantasy Literature." Translation Studies. 2 (P. 44-57)

Hermans, Theo (1988) “On Translating Proper Names, with reference to De Witte and Max Havelaar”, London/Atlantic Highlands: The Athlone Press

Kiviniemi, E. (1982)." Proper Nbame". Helsinki: Yliopistopaino.

Newmark, P. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. London: Prentice Hall.

Nord, C. (2003). "Proper Names in Translations for Children", Translation for Children, 48(2)

"Proper Name" Available at:

Searle, J.R. (1958). "Proper names" in Mind 67 (1958)

Vermes, P. (2002). "Proper Names in Translation: an Explanatory Attempt." Available at:


Published - September 2008

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