When to translate and when not.
Thread poster: Alexander Chisholm

Alexander Chisholm  Identity Verified
Italian to English
+ ...
Sep 30, 2002

The point I would like to raise has some relation to a few other threads in this section (the one regarding place names is the one that is closest to mind. That is the problem pf knowing when to translate and when to leave the original version. I\'ll explain.

I\'m a Ph.D. genetecist and for some time I have been working as a freelance translator (IT>EN), doing mostly scientific documents (patent applications, results for publication, meeting reports etc.), I also have a few years experience of working with IBM in tech. support, and so have occasionally had the odd IT document to translate, but I have recently started receiving requests to translate more generic documents (advertising copy, general subject articles etc. such as pieces on tourism and activity type sports),

The problem with all of these types of work, is that there are words and phrases for which it is difficult to decide whether or not to leave the original in place (place names, jargon etc.) or use the english version, in my case.

Examples are:-

The church of San Francesco d\'Assisi - is very well know in the UK as the church of St. Francis of Assisi...

Place names: Bergamo, Palermo, Catania, Rimini, evetyone knows these Italian place names, if the do have english versions, they are very much unknown. But Roma, Milano, Napoli, Venezia, should they be kleft as is oshould they become Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice? Then what about Livorno, does that really have to become Leghorn?

IT and computer words or phrases: computer is not the Italian word for the device but everyone uses it. Router, switch, drive don\'t seem to need any translation, but cable, burner, keyboard, screen do.

The theatre: Otello > Othello (but what if we\'re referring to Verdi and not Shakespeare) see what I mean.

Up to know, I have always gone by rule of thumb. If a word or phrase existed in English, I would use it. If a place name or a title or phrase had a known translation or corresponding name/phrase, then I would use it. But in the case where there is no accepted translation, is it always best to leave the word/phrase untranslated?

Examples; \"casoncelli\"! Should they loose their allure and become just plain \"stuffed pasta\"? Should \"ciabatta\" really have to become \"slipper\"?

I welcome anyones thoughts on this matter. I suppose I am looking for some rules I can adopt which will take the guesswork out of this part of the job, but somehow, I suspect I\'m not going to find any.


United States
Local time: 03:21
French to English
+ ...
place names Sep 30, 2002

I can only reply on this topic.

I lived in Paris, France for 10 years and was totally stumped in the beginning when I heard place names, such as:

Londres (London)

Nouvelles Orléans (New Orleans)

Côte d\'Azur (Riviera)

My suggestion is to translate well-known geographical names when there is a commonly used counterpart for the target language.


jccantrell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:21
Member (2005)
German to English
+ ...
That depends ... Sep 30, 2002

I believe that your rule of thumb is probably the best course of action. If the word exists, and is used, in English, I use the English word. Of course, it depends on your audience. If you do not know where your audience is sitting, it would REALLY be best to use just English, especially for place names.

As a native English speaker, it always annoys me when someone uses a foreign word that I do not know as if it is something that I SHOULD know. Of course, when I ask, I get the English equivalent. In print, asking is not possible and I just have to trust to context. This annoys me even more.

\"Examples; \"casoncelli\"! Should they loose their allure and become just plain \"stuffed pasta\"? Should \"ciabatta\" really have to become \"slipper\"?\"

Leaving these untranslated would lead to the situation I have described above. Not being an Italian food aficionado, I do not know the difference between casoncelli and cannelloni, so there is no allure to lose, especially in MY case!

Often, in German, we come across the name of some government agency. I usually put the translation down, followed by the German name in parentheses, and I add a note to the client.

Call me your basic down-to-earth translator, but if there exists an equivalent word or phrase in the target language, I say, use it! Of course, you may point out your misgivings in a note to the client and let them deal with it.


United Kingdom
Local time: 10:21
English to German
+ ...
My rule of thumb Sep 30, 2002

Where there is a translation you should use it unless the original is more commonly used as in the case of Livorno.

Otello - Othello. Check which name is used for the opera in English speaking countries.

Pasta names are not translated as you will find out if you make trip to a British supermarket. And ciabatta - I read somewhere that it was only invented for the benefit of foreigners, as competition to the French baguette, as it were. A lot of food products actually have French or Italian fantasy names.


Attila Piróth  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:21
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Some guidelines Sep 30, 2002

jccantrell made the point: you must make your reader feel comfortable when he/she reads your text.

This means: in the case of place names such as Napoli that have established English equivalents (Naples) the latter should be used.

The Times Style guide – well worth reading at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2941-562,00.html – gives the following guidelines:

foreign places as a general rule, use the spellings in The Times Atlas of the World, including Chinese place names (see Chinese names). However, The Times retains the Anglicised spellings of many familiar (and especially European) cities and countries, such as Brussels, Cologne, Cracow, Dunkirk, Florence, Geneva, Gothenburg, The Hague, Lyons, Majorca, Marseilles, Mexico City, Minorca, Moscow, Munich, Naples, Prague, Rheims, Rome, Salonika, Venice. See also Spanish regions.

I understand that it is especially difficult to translate the name of a town of your own country, and not keep the original – or even to pronunce it the way the speakers of the other language usually do.

History often makes this point especially delicate (Istanbul is still much rather called Constantinople in Greek).

This question is not void of politics, so the best solution is to stick to general usage or a well-established reference, like The Times Atlas of the World, and then you do not risk confusing or hurting anybody.

I think the attitude towards translating geographical names also varies from country to country, so make sure you have checked out the general usage in the target language.

Second issue: IT.

English computer terms are omnipresent – but do not forget: the usage of the majority is not necessarily the correct one – often just the easiest one. It is much easier not to translate router – although it is not difficult to find a word that describes the object/concept correctly. Check out IT materials translated by very professional people – like localizers of MS Windows. Do they use computer or do they translate it? I suppose they translate. And that is the way it should be: it is unnecessary to adapt new, foreign words when you can make do with the usual set of words. Galilei did not invent the telescope – he just boosted the power the Dutch invention. But he made sure to stick a new name to it – telescope (though the example is not water-proof: telescope is rather Greek).

Router, drive, etc. – translate it! Keep the jargon for other occasions, eg when you go to the hardware shop to have your drive changed. But writing is a different kind of thing.

Food names is a very difficult issue. Lasagne and pizza are never translaed, but something much less known would lead to misunderstanding. Check out whether you can find a satisfactory term in the target language, and only if not, use the original (preferably with explanation). Creme fraiche is used in English, but in most cases italicized.

Things like ciabatta may mean a lot more to you than slippers – but they would mean nothing to the reader – who is the first one to respect when you translate.

Good luck,



Alexander Chisholm  Identity Verified
Italian to English
+ ...
Good point. Sep 30, 2002

The point about casoncelli, raises a very good point, and problem. What to do when your translating for non Italians (english) and you come accross a word like casoncelli (I could think of other examples, but since this has already been mentioned it serves the purpose of an example exellently)? One of the documents I frequently translate is a travel quide, I need to write it in quite a brief and snappy style (for reasons of brevity and space) so I wouldn\'t have the space to include a detailed description of what the pasta dish actually was. I could say it was \"like ravioli\" but someone said they didn\'t know what ravioli was either!


Deborah Shannon  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:21
Member (2002)
German to English
Find the best compromise, given the many constraints Oct 1, 2002

Alexander, first of all thanks for starting this thread. Food for thought indeed!

(Especially the casoncelli, the only dish you\'ve mentioned so far that I wouldn\'t have recognised, as a non-Italian-speaking Brit...)

Now we\'ve moved on from linguistic constraints to others like limitations of length and space (and of course time to the deadline...) I\'d say, try to judge the writer\'s purpose for including the item in this travel guide. Is it a \"must see/do/try\" (vital information) or just thrown in to add local colour (i.e. for impact)?

If it\'s the former, what does the target reader want to know? Maybe just adding an explanatory phrase like \'speciality pasta\' gives enough help. Foreign travel is about encountering the new and different, after all. (But maybe a pronunciation tip would be good, for ordering from a menu! Then again, maybe there wouldn\'t be room, or it might clash with the style of the text).

If it\'s just for impact and likely to raise more questions than it answers, why not ask the client if they mind you substituting something more obvious? Or if time is running out, it could be better to make the decision yourself and write a separate note explaining why x was omitted or replaced with y.

There\'s no single right way to proceed, but the final result needs to be the best compromise you can come up with within the space and time and degree of flexibility allowed. And, of course, Proz is a great sounding board for running your proposed solution past other people.

If you\'ll be doing these guides regularly, it\'s worth agreeing with the client what level of \'adaptation\' they find acceptable on your part, so that you can go about your work confidently. Because travel guides more than most texts are bound to be peppered with cross-cultural puzzles of this sort.

Good luck with branching out, anyway!

All the best, Deborah

[ This Message was edited by: on 2002-10-01 10:17 ]


Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:21
Italian to English
Thought for food Oct 1, 2002

Hi Alexander,

I have just finished translating a guide book to Venetian restaurants.

The original Italian edition has a fairly substantial \"glossarietto venexiàn\", which I extended with the Italian terms that non-Italian speakers might find useful (the difference between a \"primo\" and a \"secondo\", say, is not immediately obvious to everyone). However, I left these terms in the original language in the main text (restaurant reviews) so that diners can match them against the menu, if necessary.

In addition, many terms are repeated over and over again. It would have been laborious to explain on each occasion \"folpo\" appears, for example, that the establishment in question serves octopus. The glossary is an obvious way out.

All the terms explained in the glossary are in italics in the text so that readers know they can check the meaning.

Of course, it\'s only one solution that seems to work for one specific book with a very clear purpose. In other circumstances, other solutions might be appropriate.




Kay Fisher (X)
German to English
+ ...
Otello/Othello Nov 6, 2002

On the subject of translating the names of operas - this is more difficult than it sounds because (especially in theater circles) the language of the title also is the language of performance.

So a company advertising Otello would perform in Italian, a company advertising Othello might be performing the same opera in english (it happens).

Similarly Marriage of Figaro and Nozze di Figaro


This is confused by the fact that some opera buffs will always refer to the original language title of the piece no matter what language it is being performed in and some \"plain english\" afficionados will refer to the english translation of the title no matter what the performance language.

I think you get the point!



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