Monday, March 14, 2011

Proper name translation (2): standardization

This is a sequel to Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic. Proper names pose a challenge to translation not because of the language, but because of their unique features. Selection of semantic or phonetic translation is only one of them. A more common problem may be standardization. This is not obvious to English-speaking people, who are used to translated names in English provided on the source side by the translators of the originating language. But occasionally, there are no source side translators. Shortly after 9-11 of 2001, bin Laden's name was spelled differently in various writings. I contacted regarding their spelling in a 3(?)-part long article. They explained the name was being standardized at the moment.

I used to work at an organization in China officially designated as the agency translating the United Nations documents into Chinese. Choosing correct Chinese characters for proper names is a big deal. We follow certain sources in sequence: check the People's Daily first, check ... (some other official news media), check less authoritative newspaper, and so on. If the name in Chinese is still not found, use a standard proper name translation dictionary. Yes, such a dictionary does exist. Nevertheless, proper names are still translated differently across different regions where the Chinese language is spoken, such as mainland and Taiwan.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Off-topic: What language is popular?

There are many ways to gauge what foreign language is popular. One way is to check how many books are at a bookstore. I went to a local Borders Bookstore and noted down the following. The numbers are the numbers of book shelves holding books for that language (self-study books, dictionaries, easy readers, etc):

Arabic: 1
Chinese: 1
French: 4
German:: 2
(ancient) Greek: ?
Italian: 3
Japanese: 2
Korean: less than 0.5
Latin: 1.5
Portuguese: 1
Russian: less than 1
Spanish: too many

Even if this were not in south Texas, I bet Spanish would still beat any other language. I'm surprised at the high number for French and relatively low number for Chinese, considering the fact that more high schools or junior high have both as foreign languages. But that's what the market is, or at least what the bookstore follows.

[Update] This posting has a follow-up in 2015: What language is popular? A revisit.