How does a language decide when to translate a common word in a foriegn place name?
March 8, 2007 9:47 AM   Subscribe

How does a language decide when to translate a common word in a foriegn place name?

Using New York and New Orleans as examples, I've been intrigued that in Spanish it is New Orleans but Nueva York, while in French it is New York but Nouvelle Orleans. So why is the "New" sometimes translated but sometimes not? I note that New York is New York in Russian (albiet in Cyrillic) but Nowy Jork in Polish.

I would assume that sort of came about organically, but is there a general rule, like a place more in the languages collective consciousness (Spanish and Polish immigrants in New York - the Francophone heritage of New Orleans) will usually get translated where they don't if less so?

PS I am talking not about the actual place but common words that are part of and modify the place e.g. North and South, or East or West etc., etc.

I know some of this is political like Ivory Coast to Cote d'Ivoire and East Timor to Timur Leste.
posted by xetere to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting question. This article directly addresses your example:

The word state translates as état and estado in French and Spanish, respectively; being masculine in both cases. On the other hand, city translates to ville and ciudad, both feminine. For New York, the name does not change in French. Thus, we have l'état de New York and la ville de New York. Since the wording New York has no gender designation, using the same name for the city and the state in the language of Molière is not problematic. This is not the case in the language of Cervantes. In Spanish, New York is translated as Nueva York. When Nueva York refers to the city, there is agreement in gender and things go smoothly; when we refer to Nueva York as an 'estado,' however, since the noun estado is masculine and the adjective Nueva is feminine, we most certainly have a problem.

In French, as previously mentioned, New York is simply transferred. On the other hand, New Orleans is translated as Nouvelle Orléans. This seems logical, as this city was founded by the French and hence this is its original name. Because of this, it could be argued that the French prefer to leave the names of the "New" towns in their original tongue. Well, once again, there is no room for generalization. Let's take, for example, New Mexico. New Mexico was founded by the Spaniards and then became part of Mexico. As a result, its original name is Nuevo México. After the Mexican War, it became a territory and later a state of the U.S.A., having its spelling changed to the anglicized New Mexico. Unlike New York, New Mexico changes its English name in French to Nouveau Mexique. So, once again, beware of generalizing.

posted by vacapinta at 10:03 AM on March 8, 2007


Most of these kinds of things result from common practice, and common practice is notoriously inconsistent.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:06 AM on March 8, 2007


History is probably the answer in some cases. New Orleans is Nouvelle Orleans because it was originally French, Cote d'Ivoire was a French colony. The official name is Cote d'Ivoire, so maybe one should ask why English speakers call it Ivory Coast. Why was Nouvelle Orleans translated to New Orleans?

Otherwise, I can't really help. I imagine it has something to do with the number of speakers of the language in that place or in the same country. For instance, since Canada is a bilingual country, British Columbia is Columbie Britannique in French, and similarly for Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, etc. I'd imagine Poles don't have Polish names for Canadian provinces.
posted by ssg at 10:08 AM on March 8, 2007


I don't get the Nouvelle Ecosse/Nova Scotia thing at all. Nova Scotia is Latin. Why not leave it there?
posted by jon_kill at 10:38 AM on March 8, 2007


Related thread
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:46 AM on March 8, 2007


jon_kill, I think to answer that you have to go back to why Scotland is called Ecosse in French. And the answer to that question you would need to go back, most likely, thousands of years. I'd imagine the French weren't overjoyed to find the English deciding to rename part of Acadie (aside from the whole protracted battle to control North America thing) and so didn't take to the new name easily once they finally admitted that the English had things locked down in that area. Someone with a better knowledge of Canadian history than I could probably do a much better job of this.

Also, I just can't see how "Scotia" rolls off the tongue very well in (at least contemporary) French.
posted by ssg at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2007


I'm from the place the Acadians were exiled from to form New Orleans and when speaking French I don't think I have ever heard anyone call it anything but "New Orleans". Same in Quebec - in my experience there is a tendency just to say the English name, not translate it.
posted by loiseau at 12:13 PM on March 8, 2007


loiseau: A quick search of lemonde.fr for "orleans" reveals that Nouvelle Orleans is the preferred term.

Likewise, I know many Spanish speakers who say "Vivo en New York." but on any Spanish geographical map of los Estados Unidos, its always listed as "Nueva York." I think thus that this question is about how did the standard get to be the standard?
posted by vacapinta at 12:24 PM on March 8, 2007


I've often wondered this, not so much about place names, but about individual names. My grandfather's Spanish name is "Domingo", and when he moved to the US, he chose to be called "Sunday", rather than "Dominic".
posted by grateful at 12:35 PM on March 8, 2007


vacapinta: "loiseau: A quick search of lemonde.fr for "orleans" reveals that Nouvelle Orleans is the preferred term"

That may well be in France (Quebecois and Acadian French both differ from France French), or even in Canada formally, but I'm saying I've never heard anyone in either community say it that way. There is rather a (occasionally amusing) tendency to plop English proper names in the middle of a sentence.
posted by loiseau at 12:36 PM on March 8, 2007


In my experience, there is no standard. Some spanish speakers say "Nueva York", some say "New York", some "New Orleans", some "Nueva Orleans" (more common).

when we refer to Nueva York as an 'estado,' however, since the noun estado is masculine and the adjective Nueva is feminine, we most certainly have a problem.

No, we don't. "El estado de Nueva York" sounds fine and there is no grammatical problem with it.
posted by signal at 12:41 PM on March 8, 2007


In my experience, there is no standard. Some spanish speakers say "Nueva York", some say "New York", some "New Orleans", some "Nueva Orleans"

Again, I'm referring to a written standard. I thought I was clear on that when I said I also know spanish speakers who say "New York." But if you pore over these maps, I dont think you will find even one that says "New York"
posted by vacapinta at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2007


I dont think you will find even one that says "New York"

I am sitting in front of a "mapa del mundo" published by the "instituto geografico militar de chile", which has in the top right corner of "estados unidos de america" a black dot for "New York".

So, like I said, no standard.
posted by signal at 1:06 PM on March 8, 2007


Oh, the same map reports "Nueva Orleans".
posted by signal at 1:06 PM on March 8, 2007


So I stand corrected. I've always heard and seen it predominantly as "Nueva York" but I suppose saying anything is standard across Latin America is bound to be false. Still, I blame Bernardo O'Higgins.
posted by vacapinta at 1:20 PM on March 8, 2007


The pronunciation of names is similarly inconsistent. For example, New Orleans is pronounced "New Orlins"(or similarly depending where in the city you're from), but some people pronounce Orleans Ave like "Or-leens" and we pronounce Robert like "Row-Bear", yet Milan is "Mile-an" and Calliope is "cally-ope".

I think it has to be one of those "common usage" things.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:59 PM on March 8, 2007


I lived in Germany for a while a few years back and found the translation of German place names interesting. Just a few:

Koeln : Cologne
Muenchen : Munich
Bayern : Bavaria
posted by jefficator at 2:27 PM on March 8, 2007


jefficator: Or, most importantly. "Deutschland" instead of "Germany."

The German names for non-German places are also interesting, like "Frankreich" (basically Frankish Kingdom) for France.

And then there are non-Latin things like Arabic names for American places or vice versa.. "America" in Arabic: أَمِيركِيّ

But, none of this really deals with the question of the OP, which is something I've always been interested in as well. The Arabic translation for New York, I believe, is just a transliteration: نيويورك
posted by atomly at 5:41 PM on March 8, 2007


atomly--that Arabic name for America is pretty much just a transliteration, too, mod phonological differences---"America" to "'Amrikiy" isn't much of a change. . .
posted by FlyingMonkey at 9:31 PM on March 8, 2007


Talking about inconsistent pronunciations, one of my favorites is this: "The Arkansas river in the state of Arkansas". That's pronounced:

"the arr-KANN-zuss river in the state of ARR-kann-saw."

Don't ask me why, that's just how it is.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:21 PM on March 9, 2007


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