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The translation of personal proper names seems to be an effortless task, but several minor setbacks may occur during the process of the translation of these items. This study aimed at determining the translation procedures involved in the translation of personal proper names in the mythical section of the Shahnameh. Three English translations were applied for the collection of the relevant data. The framework of this study was Newmark's (1988a) translation procedures for translating proper names in general. The study also attempted to identify which of the three translators had best conveyed the national flavor of the original text. The study concluded that two procedures, i.e. transference and naturalization, were applied in these three translations for translating personal proper names of the mythical section of the Shahnameh. It also concluded that Davis was the most successful in rendering these items, as he had managed to preserve the local color of the ST to a much higher degree in comparison to the other two translators.

Key words: naturalization, personal proper name, transference, translation procedure

1. Introduction

As easy as it may seem, the translation of 'personal proper names' should not be taken for granted. It is assumed by most theorists and scholars to be a trivial discussion in the realm of translation, as they are believed to be simply transferred from the SL to the TL. The process of translating personal proper names, which belong to the category of proper names, may in fact, sometimes turn out to be problematic. Imagine the names "Rostam", "Bijan", and "Siyavash" from the Shahnameh being translated as " Rustem ", "Byzun", and "Saiawush"[1]. Unless the translator is aware of the correct Persian pronunciations and the negative and positive cultural connotations of these names in the Persian culture and in the Shahnameh, he will not be able to transfer the exact or at least, approximately exact, local color and nationality of the ST into the TT. 

The Shahnameh is a great example for 'proper names', categorized by Newmark (1988a) into names of people, names of objects, and geographical terms; and since the book was written in almost pure Persian, these proper names, among other items, offer local color to the text, which, as mentioned above, is an element required to be conveyed into the TL, in order to recreate the spirit of the original.

The Shahnameh enjoys a natural and rhythmic flow, an archaic tone and many literary devices including figures of speech, hyperboles, puns, an abundance of culture-bound terms of various types, color terms and much more. Studies have been conducted on most of these devices present in the Shahnameh, but unfortunately not much work seems to have been performed on its proper names. There have been, however, theorists and scholars, such as Newmark (1988a, 1988b), Hervey and Higgins (1992), Vermes (2003) who have conducted works on the translation of proper names in general. The procedures they have introduced will be applied in this study to the translation of personal proper names in the Shahnameh.

Therefore, the present study will focus on personal proper names attributed to fictional characters in the Shahnameh. It will aim at determining the procedures applied in three English translations of the Shahnameh by Atkinson (1832), Warner & Warner (1925), and Davis (1997) and at how effectively they have managed to render the same cultural atmosphere and national sense of the source text.

2. Theoretical Preliminaries

2.1. Definition of 'name'

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "a name is a word or group of words used to refer to an individual entity (real or imaginary)" (vol.24 , p.733). The science that studies names in all their aspects is called onomastics (or onomatology). The subject of this science is broad, because almost everything can have a name and because the study of names theoretically encompasses all languages, all geographical and cultural regions, and all historical epochs. For practical purposes, some divisions of the subject are necessary; e.g. by language, or by geographical, historical, or similar partitions. Another division (usually combined with the preceding ones) is given by the character of the names themselves; in a very broad categorization, names of persons, or personal names, are discerned on the one hand, and names of places, or place names, on the other. In the most precise terminology, a set of personal names is called anthroponymy and their study is called anthroponomastics. A set of place names is called toponymy, and their study is called toponomastics. In a looser usage, however, the term onomastics is used for personal names and their study, and the term toponymy is used for place names and their study.

2.2. Meanings of names

As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "one of the most important elements of the naming process concerns the meaning and associations of the name" (ibid, p.734). The meaning of a name involves that which the constituent parts suggest. In this sense, the meaning of a name like Red River is obvious. "To get the meaning of a name like Philip, however, one must go back to its original Greek version, Philippos, which means "lover of horses". This meaning of names frequently gets lost, however" (ibid). There are several causes for this:

1. The name may be accepted into another language, as were the Indian place names in America, and the Greek and other names transferred to Europe and America via Christianity.

2. Names may cease to be understood as a result of language change, for example, the place name Birmingham was understandable in Old English as "habitation of Biorma's people".

3. Names may have lost their meaning because they have been changed by shortening (e.g., Los Angeles, from El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles, "Town of the Queen of the Angels", the town named in honor of the Virgin Mary).

4. The meaning may have disappeared because the names have been changed by scribal error (e.g., Pria in France, a misread medieval abbreviation of Pradaria, "meadow").

5. The meaning simply fades out by constant use of the word as a name. No one thinks of the meaning "ford for oxen" when speaking about Oxford, and no one realizes a discrepancy if Mr. White has a dark complexion.

6. It sometimes happens that a name has no particular meaning from the beginning. For instance, the place name Tonolo and the family name Bréal were created from random sequences of sounds.

2.3. Proper names

According to Newmark's (1988a) categorization, proper names consist of people's names, names of objects and geographical terms. Proper names are sometimes mistakenly considered the same as cultural terms, and despite the fact that proper names do convey a cultural sense in the text, they are two separate categories. "The distinction is that while both refer to persons, objects or processes peculiar to a single ethnic community, [proper names] have singular references, while [cultural terms] refer to classes of entities" (Newmark, 1988a, p.70).

People's names or personal proper names, which are the main focus of this study, include first and last names of people, names of saints, monarchs, popes, prominent figures of Greece, Rome and the Renaissance, prominent foreigners and imaginary characters in folk stories and fairy tales, which may or may not have connotations in the text (Newmark, 1988b). These are among a series of items which offer local color to a text. The Shahnameh abounds in personal proper names, starting with the fictional characters of Kiumars (also Giumard in some versions), Houshang, Jamshid and moving on towards more heroic characters, such as Rostam and Sohrab, and then finishing off the last section of the book with historical and authentic characters, like Yazdegerd, Khosrow Parviz and Alexander.

In the following section, the translation procedures suggested by Newmark (1988a), Hervey and Higgins (1992), and Vermes (2003) for translating "proper names" will be introduced. These procedures apply to all three categories of proper names, i.e. personal proper names, names of objects, and geographical terms. It should be noted that some of the translation procedures introduced by the three are ultimately similar, differing only in their labels.

2.4. Translation Procedures for Proper Names

Newmark (1988a) states that names of single persons or objects are outside languages and belong to the encyclopedia, not the dictionary and according to Mill (as cited in Newmark, 1988a, p. 70), they "have no meaning or connotations, therefore they are untranslatable".

Based on Newmark's suggestions, personal proper names are normally transferred, thus preserving their nationality, and assuring that their names have no connotations in the text. Newmark's transference, similar to Catford's, is a translation procedure involving transliteration, which relates to the conversion of different alphabets, e.g. in the case of this study, the conversion of the Persian alphabet into the English alphabet:

(جمشید → Jamshid)

Another translation procedure regarding personal proper names again introduced by Newmark and succeeding transference is naturalization, which adapts the SL word to the normal morphology of the TL; e.g.,

(منوچهر → Minuchihr)

Therefore, personal proper names undergo either transference or naturalization, but this is in the case of names which have no connotations in the text. For those which do have connotations, e.g. in comedies, allegories, fairy tales and some children's stories, Newmark (1988 b) suggests to first translate the word into the TL, and then to naturalize the translated word back into a new SL proper name:

Nabatov → "alarm" → Alarmov

Toporov → "axe" → Hackitov

Goodman* (from Young Goodman Brown) → "مرد خوب" →    نیک مرد

* کندرو(from the Shahnameh) → "one who walks slowly" → Slow-walker

Hervey and Higgins (1992) believe that there exist two strategies for translating proper names. They point out that "either the name can be taken over unchanged from the ST to the TT, or it can be adopted to conform to the phonic/graphic conventions of the TL" (p.29). They refer to the former as exotism (e.g. جمشید → Jamshid), which "is tantamount to literal translation, and involves no cultural transposition" (p.29), and the latter as transliteration (e.g. منوچهر → Minuchihr). However, they propose another procedure or alternative, as they put it, namely cultural transplantation. Being considered as "the extreme degree of cultural transposition", cultural transplantation is considered to be a procedure in which "SL names are replaced by indigenous TL names that are not their literal equivalents, but have similar cultural connotations" (Hervey and Higgins, 1992, p.29). An example for a cultural transplantation would be the possible rendering of 'Thunder', a horse's name, by تیزپا  (Teezpa).

Vermes (2003) suggests that in translating a proper name, translators have four basic operations at their disposal: transference, translation proper, substitution, and modification. Each is defined in the following way:

Transference: Vermes (2003) explains his transference as being the same as Newmark's and Catford's transference. In his own words, Vermes (2003,p.93) states that transference occurs "when we decide to incorporate the SL proper name unchanged into the TL text; either because it only contributes its referent to the meaning of the utterance, or because any change would make the processing of the utterance too costly". The example for Hervey and Higgins' exotism and Newmark's transference would also apply to this section (جمشید → Jamshid), as these three procedures are similar.

Translation: "… this means rendering the SL name, or at least part of it, by a TL expression which gives rise to the same, or approximately the same, analytic implications in the target text as the original name did in the source text" (Vermes, 2003, p. 94). A simple example would be the rendering of 'the Pacific Ocean' as اقیانوس آرام.

Substitution: By substitution, he refers to those cases "where the SL name has a conventional correspondent in the TL, which replaces the SL item in the translation. This applies to a large number of geographical names. In such a case, when there is a conventional correspondent available in the TL, this would seem to be the translator's first and natural choice: the one that comes to mind almost subconsciously …, the translator, in an ordinary translation situation, is more or less obliged to use this conventional correspondent in the translation" (Vermes, 2003, p. 93).  An example would be the conventional rendering of 'England' into انگلستان.

Modification: He defines modification as "the process of choosing for the SL name a TL substitute which is logically, or conventionally, unrelated, or only partly related to the original" (Vermes, 2003, p. 94). The example for Hervey and Higgins' cultural transplantation would also apply to this section (Thunder تیزپا ), as these two procedures are similar.

According to the procedures introduced above, it is concluded that Newmark's transference, Hervey and Higgins' exotism, and Vermes' transference are similar; Newmark's naturalization, and Hervey and Higgins' transliteration are similar; Hervey and Higgins' cultural transplantation and Vermes' modification are also similar. 

2.5. Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh

Ferdowsi (935-1020 AD) was born in a village near Tus, in the province of Khorasan. He is considered to be one of the greatest Persian poets to have ever lived. Among the national heroes and literary greats of all time, Ferdowsi has a very special place in the Persian speaking world. His life-long endeavor and dedication to preserve the national identity, language and heritage of his homeland put him in great hardship during his lifetime, but won him fame and honor, as he himself had predicted when he wrote: 

I've reached the end of this great history

And all the land will fill with talk of me

I shall not die, these seeds I've sown will save

My name and reputation from the grave

And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,

When I have gone, my praises and my fame.

                                               Dick Davis (1997)

The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi is a national epic with approximately 60,000 couplets, making it more than seven times the length of Homer's Iliad, and more than twelve times the length of the German Nibelungenlied. The book consists of three sections, mythical, heroic and historical. This epic work starts with Giumard, believed by the Zoroastrians to be the first man created, who was also the first mythical king of Persia, and ends with the Islamic conquest of Persia in early 7th century A.D.

Aside from its utmost literary importance, the Shahnameh written in almost pure Persian, has been pivotal for reviving the Persian language subsequent to the influence of Arabic. This voluminous work also reflects Iran's history, cultural values, its ancient religions, and its profound sense of nationhood.

There are many manuscripts available of the Persian Shahnameh. The most reliable are the following:

1. The Florence manuscript, which was edited over 200 years after the book was written and of which only the first half is in hand

2. The British Museum manuscript written in 1829 in four volumes

3. The Jules Mohl manuscript, written in 1838 in seven volumes

4. The Soviet Academy of Sciences manuscript, edited in 1971

These versions mostly differentiate in the total number of couplets; and occasionally, a displacement of words in each line, and also the use of alternative words is observed in some couplets.

The following are examples of some differences between the Jules Mohl and the British Museum manuscripts:

1. Difference due to the number of couplets:

The Prelude to the Story of Rostam and Sohrab consists of 19 couplets in the Jules Mohl manuscript, but of 15 couplets in the British Museum manuscript.

2. Difference due to the displacement of words:

The following couplet belongs to the Jules Mohl manuscript,

برین کار یزدان ترا کار نیست          اگر دیو با جانت انباز نیست

whereas, in the British Museum manuscript two words are dislocated,

برین کار یزدان ترا کار نیست          اگر جانت با دیو انباز نیست

3. Difference due to the usage of alternative words:

Jules Mohl manuscript:

ستمگاره خوانیمش ار دادگر          هنرمند گوییمش ار بی هنر

British Museum manuscript:

ستمگاره خوانیمش ار دادگر          هنرمند دانیمش ار بی هنر

There have been numerous translations of the Shahnameh into most of the languages of the world. However, the most prominent English translations of this masterpiece are as follows:

1. James Atkinson (1832) wrote an abridged version of the Shahnameh combining prose and poetry.

2. William T. Robertson (1829) wrote his version of Rostam and Sohrab.

3. Matthew Arnold (1853) wrote an adaptation of Rostam and Sohrab, and named it "Sohrab and Rustum".

4. Helen Zimmern (1882) translated eighteen episodes of the Shahnameh into an abridged prose version.

5. Arthur and Edmond Warner (1905-1925) translated the whole book in verse in nine volumes.

6. Reuben Levy (1967) rendered an abridged prose version and named it "The Epic of the Kings".

7. Jerome Clinton (1987) translated the stories of Rostam and Sohrab, and also Rostam and Esfandiyar into verse and named them "The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam" and "In the Dragon's Claws", respectively.

8. Dick Davis (1997) translated the book into an abridged combination of prose and poetry in three volumes titled "The Lion and the Throne", "Fathers and Sons", and "Sunset of Empire". 

3. Methodology

In this study, the personal proper names of fictional characters were extracted from the first section of the Shahnameh, i.e. the mythical section. Their corresponding terms were located in three English translations of the Shahnameh, i.e. Atkinson (1832), Warner & Warner (1925) and Davis (1997). Among the personal proper names extracted, only twenty-four names were able to be used for this study, as Atkinson's and Davis' translations are not complete translations of the whole Shahnameh. The identified names and their corresponding terms in the three translations were compared to determine which of the translation procedures proposed by Newmark (1988a) were applied and ultimately, which translation(s) was/were more effective in terms of conveying the local color and spirit of the original text.

Table 1 displays seven of the twenty four personal proper names extracted from the afore-mentioned section, their translations by each of the three translators, and the procedures applied by each translator.

It should be noted that N=naturalization (similar to Hervey and Higgins' transliteration), T=transference (similar to Hervey and Higgins' exotism and Vermes' transference).

The following six vowels applied in this table are pronounced as the vowels in each associated example.

a → bat                  á → hall

i  → lily                  í  → police

u → bull                 ú → rude


Persian Names



Warner & Warner





























































Table 1. Translation of 7 personal proper names by the three translators and their applied procedures.

Table 2 and table 3 demonstrate the frequency and percentage of the two translation procedures involved in the translation of all the twenty four personal proper names applied in this study. The frequency and percentage of names that have been translated erroneously are also included.




Wrong translation





Warner & Warner








       Table 2. Frequency of translation procedures applied




Wrong translation





Warner & Warner








         Table 3. Percentage of translation procedures applied

4. Conclusion

Among the translation procedures proposed by Newmark (1988a, 1988b), Hervey and Higgins (1992), and Vermes (2003) for translating proper names, only two procedures were applied by the translators, i.e. transference(or exotism) and naturalization (or transliteration). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that transference and naturalization seem to be the only translation procedures applied for the translation of fictional personal proper names in the mythical section of the Shahnameh.

As displayed in table 2 and table 3, the majority of the names translated by Atkinson have undergone naturalization, whereas Warner & Warner have mostly applied transference. Davis, on the other hand, has applied only transference. In addition, Atkinson has translated three items and Warner & Warner have translated one item incorrectly, whereas, Davis has made no mistakes.

It seems that Davis has been more successful in translating these personal proper names, in terms of transferring the local color of the ST to the TT by rendering them as they are pronounced in Persian. However, the fact that Atkinson, and Warner & Warner have translated this book in an era when probably no translation procedures had been introduced for the translation of proper names, and also the fact that they most likely did not have the benefit of consultations of a native Persian, must be taken into consideration. However, as one of the goals of this study was to determine which of the three translators was more successful in his translation of the personal proper names, it could be concluded that Davis has accomplished this goal more effectively than the other two translators.


Atkinson, J. (1989). The Shahnameh of the Persian Poet Ferdausi. Tehran: Sahab Geographic and Drafting Institute.

Britannica Editors (ed) (1995). Names. In Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol.24, pp. 733-738). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.

Davis, R. (1997). The Persian Book of Kings. New York: Penguin Classic.

Hervey, S. and Higgins, I. (1992). Thinking Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

Newmark, P. (1988a). Approaches to Translation. London: Prentice Hall.

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

Vermes, A.P. (2003). Proper names in translation: an explanatory attempt. In: Across Languages and Cultures 4 (1), pp. 89-108.

Warner, A.G. and Warner, E. (1925). The Shahnama of Firdausi. London: Keegan Paul.

[1] Three examples of personal proper names by Atkinson (1832) in his English translation of the Shahnameh.

*  To be more precise, these two examples lack the SL elements which naturalize them into a new SL proper name, mainly because it seemed difficult to find appropriate suffixes or elements in the SL of each example. 



Published - October 2008

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