Translating Names of Places
Thread poster: Anaviva

Anaviva  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:21
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Sep 9, 2002

Can anyone give me any advice on how to approach names of places, such as churches, caves, architecture, etc. Although it\'s obvious with well-known places such as St Peter\'s Square, what does one do with unfamiliar tourist spots? Are there any general \"rules\"?


Mats Wiman  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:21
Member (2000)
German to Swedish
+ ...

One cannot say there are general rules Sep 9, 2002

It depends so much on culture, history and how well-known the place/object is.

Normally one does not translate the name unless it\'s common in one\'s own language

S:t Peter\'s square


The Altamira cave

The Bikini atoll

The Nobel Peace Price

Westminster Abbey: Nobody would translate Abbey

S:t Paul\'s Cathedral could be translated


Mailand is German for Milano

Gothenburg is English for Göteborg

Aix-la-Chapelle is French for Aachen

Aken is Dutch for Aachen

Estocolmo is Spanish for Stockholm

Peking is English for Beijing


I\'m sure other colleagues can perfect my posting



Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:21
Dutch to English
+ ...
Names of places Sep 9, 2002

Your best bet is to consult an Atlas (for example the one that The Times produces if you are translating into English). You will see that most places are named as they are used in the country with some exceptions:



La Haya/The Hague/Den Haag


The European Commission Translation Service English Style Guide gives the following guidelines (you can download the whole document from:

General. Many place names have an anglicised form, but as people become more familiar with these names in the language of the country concerned, the foreign spelling of some place names is gaining wider currency in written English. As a rule of thumb, therefore, use the native form for geographical names except where an anglicised form is overwhelmingly common. If in doubt as to whether an anglicised form is in widespread use, use only those given in the following sections and in Annex 1.


Orthography. Recommended spellings of countries (full names and short forms), country adjectives, capital cities, currencies and abbreviations are given in the list at Geographical names frequently contain pitfalls for the unwary, particularly in texts dealing with current events. Check carefully that you have used the English form, where appropriate. Examples: Belén/Bethlehem; Hong-Kong/Hong Kong; Irak/Iraq; Mogadiscio/Mogadishu; Laibach/Ljubljana; Naplouse/Nablus; Pressburg/Bratislava; Saïda/Sidon.


Countries/cities. Watch out for the definite article when translating place names from French, as in the following table.

Country/territory City/town

(au) Gaza — the Gaza Strip (à) Gaza — Gaza

(au) Guatemala — Guatemala (à) Guatemala — Guatemala City

(au) Mexique — Mexico (à) Mexico — Mexico City

and NB in Spanish:

México — Mexico México D.F. — Mexico City


Scandinavian/Nordic. When referring to the countries of the Nordic Council, i.e. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, together with the Faeroes, Greenland and the Åland islands, use \'Nordic\' rather than \'Scandinavian\' in terms such as \'Nordic countries\' or \'Nordic cooperation\'.

However, you may use \'Scandinavia(n)\' if you do not need to be specific, though bear in mind English usage such as it is. In its narrow geographical interpretation, \'Scandinavia\' refers to the two countries of the Scandinavian peninsula, i.e. Norway and Sweden. In practice, however, it includes Denmark and is often stretched to cover Finland. As a cultural term, \'Scandinavian\' also embraces Iceland and the Faeroes. Note, however, that \'Scandinavian languages\' refers to the northern Germanic languages, i.e. Danish, Faeroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish, but not of course Finnish.


Names of regions. Regional names fall into three types.

Administrative units. Anglicise only those names given in the list in Annex 1. Names of units below the top region/province tier should be left in the native spelling, without inverted commas.

Traditional geographical names. Anglicise if the English has wide currency, e.g. the Black Forest, the Ruhr. Otherwise retain original spelling and accents. Regional products are a frequent example:

a Rheinhessen wine, the eastern Périgord area, the Ardèche region (NB: it is useful to add “region” or “area” in such cases), Lüneburger Heide

Officially designated development areas. Designated development areas are mostly derived from names of administrative units or from traditional geographical names, often with a defining adjective. Follow the appropriate rule above, e.g.:

Lower Bavaria; the Charentes development area

Cross-border Community regions such as Euregio take an initial capital only.


Rivers. Moselle always for wine, and for the river in connection with France and Luxembourg; Mosel may be used if the context is Germany. Use Meuse in French/Belgian contexts, Maas for the Netherlands; Rhine and Rhineland for Rhein, Rhin, Rijn, Rheinland; Tiber for Tevere; Tagus for Tajo.


Seas. Anglicise seas (e.g. the Adriatic, the North Sea, the Baltic); Greenland waters implies official sea limits; use “waters off Greenland” if something else is meant.


Lakes. Anglicise Lake Constance, Lake Geneva, Lake Maggiore. But note Königssee.


Other bodies of water. Write Ijsselmeer (without capital J), Wattenmeer, Kattegat (Danish), Kattegatt (Swedish), Great/Little Belt.


Islands. Islands are often administrative units in their own right, so leave in original spelling, except Corsica, Sicily, Sardinia, the Canary Islands, the Azores and Greek islands with accepted English spellings, such as Crete, Corfu, Lesbos.

Use Fyn rather than Fünen in English texts and use West Friesian Islands for Waddeneilanden.


Mountains. Anglicise the Alps, Apennines (one p), Dolomites, Pindus Mountains, and Pyrenees (no accents).

Do not anglicise Massif Central (except for capital C), Alpes Maritimes (capital M) or Schwäbische Alb.

Alpenvorland should be translated as the foothills of the Alps.


Valleys. Words for valley should be translated unless referring to an official region or local produce: the Po valley, the Valle d\'Aosta, Remstal wine.



Austria Use Vienna for Wien.

Belgium Use the forms Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Ostend.

Flemish v. French forms. Use Flemish names of places in Dutch-speaking provinces and French for French-speaking areas.

For details, see Annex 2.

Denmark Note Copenhagen, Aarhus, Aalborg.

Finland Finland is a bilingual country, and many cities and localities have official names in both Finnish and Swedish. When translating from either language, remember that the form to be used depends on the local language situation, not on the text you are translating. Full lists of the Finnish/Swedish names which take precedence can be found at: Note in particular that for all major cities the Finnish name must be used: write Helsinki, Oulu, Tampere, Turku, not Helsingfors, Uleåborg, Tammerfors, Åbo.

France Write Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg.

Germany Use the forms Cologne and Munich.

Greece Use traditional English spellings for well-known cities, regions, prefectures, etc. — the officially recommended transcription system has not found acceptance even within the European Union and is unknown elsewhere. However, use transliteration for unfamiliar localities, and note that preference should always be given to the demotic forms of place names (where known).

Ireland Leave Irish spellings if given, except Baile Atha Cliath (the Irish for Dublin).

Italy Use the English spellings Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Rome, Turin, Venice. Take care not to use the French spelling of other towns, which may differ only slightly from the Italian.

Luxembourg French spelling for Luxembourg (country and city).

The Netherlands Always write The Hague with a capital T except when used attributively (e.g. the Hague Convention).

Portugal Use Lisbon.

Spain Write Seville. Otherwise use Spanish spelling, e.g. Córdoba, Coruña.

Sweden Note Gothenburg for Göteborg.


Adjectives from place names. English as a rule makes less use of adjectives from country names than some other languages (French, German). Watch for this in such phrases as la position turque (Turkey\'s position). Note also that French writers tend to use the full name of a country (République italienne) where English would use the short form (Italy).


Non-literal geographical names. Geographical names used in lexicalised compounds tend to be lowercased, as they are no longer considered proper adjectives: roman numerals, gum arabic, prussic acid. Consult the Concise Oxford Dictionary in cases of doubt.


Compass points. No capitals for north, north-west, north-western, etc. unless part of an administrative or political unit or a distinct regional entity. Hence South Africa, Northern Ireland but southern Africa, northern France. Note, however, Central and Eastern European countries (capitalised because the connotations are more political than geographic) — see 19.10. Compass bearings are abbreviated without a point (54°E).


Compound compass points. Compound compass points are hyphenated and, in official designations, each part is capitalised (South-West Germany, the North-West Frontier); always abbreviate as capitals without stops (NW France).

For Spanish there is a \'NOMENCLATURA TOPONÍMICA INTERNACIONAL; Nombres de países, capitales, gentilicios y monedas\':


Natasha Stoyanova  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:21
Member (2002)
English to Bulgarian
+ ...
Great!!! Sep 9, 2002

Thanks a lot! I think many of the colleagues will enjoy this explanation..and links!


Anaviva  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:21
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Many thanks! Sep 9, 2002

Dear Mats and Marijke

Thanks for your very helpful advice and those great links.

Ana icon_smile.gif


John Kinory (X)
Local time: 04:21
English to Hebrew
+ ...
Yes, you do sometimes translate common nouns Sep 9, 2002


On 2002-09-09 14:35, MatsWiman wrote:


Normally one does not translate the name unless it\'s common in one\'s own language

St Peter\'s square


Westminster Abbey: Nobody would translate Abbey


I agree with some of the general principles you mention, especially that there is no general rule.

I don\'t agree that \'nobody would translate Abbey\' - it does get translated into Hebrew, for example. Since Westminster doesn\'t have a specifically Hebrew name, it stays; but Abbey gets translated. Mind you, the common translation \'knessiyat westminister\' (Church of Westminster) is not strictly correct, but it\'s become established.

The same goes for Buckingham Palace: Armon Buckingham.

I am sure this would apply in many other language-pairs, but perhaps not in others. And there would be instances where it may not apply in any language.


Kevin Harper  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:21
German to English
+ ...
There is a book on this. Sep 10, 2002

I think it\'s called \"Oxford Dictionary of the World\". When in doubt, I always refer to the Oxford term. This might be useful when translating texts from countries where language is a political issue. For example, some people prefer to use \"Brugge\" instead of the Oxford English \"Bruges\". It may be politically correct, but an English person won\'t know what you\'re talking about if you say \"Brugge\" (although we do say \"Zeebrugge\"). In the German-Belgian border area, signs are only the language of the immediate area you are in, which changes along the motorway. If you\'re heading for Liège, the sign will change to Luik and Lüttich, depending on which border the road crosses.

Some regions within a language area tend to translate names more than others, and this caused me no end of confusion in Austria. \"Agram\" was used for \"Zagreb\", for example, of which my sister-in-law from Munich had never heard.


Martin Perazzo  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:21
Spanish to English
+ ...
abadía de Wesminster Sep 17, 2002

As for Mats\'s comment on whether or not to translate \"abbey\", that\'s the way it\'s said in Spanish. Although I disagree with some of his remarks, I agree with the general gist of his post - there are no \"set\" rules regarding place names, at least in English or Spanish, unless the name is well known.



Local time: 05:21
Spanish to English
+ ...
Translating place names that have more than one version Nov 29, 2005

Sorry to drag up an old thread, but I have a related question: I was just wondering how do you go about translating names when they are in a language other than that of the text. For example, texts from Catalonia or the Basque country that are written in Spanish often contain place names in Catalan or Basque. What do you do in these instances? Do you try to unify your translation (if you have left certain words in Spanish, is it alright to have place names in Catalan?). Do you use the name you think is most common? Or, do you respect the original and use the same name?

And how do you know whether a word is “common knowledge”? I’ve always translated “Navarra” as “Navarre” and “Sevilla” as “Seville”, but I am starting to think that I’m the only one at my agency who knows of these anglicised versions, judging by the number of translations I have had to change during proof-reading.




Local time: 05:21
French to English
Saints' names used for churches and places Dec 5, 2005

Hello Ruth et al - this thread seems the closest to my problem of the moment - which is similar to Ruth's. I am translating a text for English speaking tourists in France, visiting a specific small town that is a well kept secret (not somewhere that the Brits have heard of as a rule.) So we have churches which have names that are easy to translate if I want to: St John's / St Jean, Sainte Croix / The Holy Cross, St. Peter's / St.Pierre etc etc. However there is also a part of the town and a medieval city gate which are called St Jacques - with reference to it being on the pilgrim route to Sant Iago di Compostella. So what do you think I should do about that, as if they are going to go out visiting they are only going to see signs saying "Saint Jacques" (and the same applies to the churches). Any bright ideas would be welcome.



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