Web Translation Projects/Personal Names in Translation

Personal Names in TranslationEdit

The project explores the topic of translating personal proper names, including first names, surnames and pseudonyms. Its main purpose is to identify and describe different translation strategies used in the translation of personal names, considering how various types of texts influence the decisions made by translators in this regard. The introductory part of the project gives a definition of proper names and presents the scholarly debate concerning whether they bear exclusively denotative, or both denotative and connotative meaning. It is followed by the presentation of ten strategies of translating personal names distinguished by Jan van Coillie. The analysis of challenges posed by personal names revolves around several types of texts, including non-fiction, fiction and children's literature. I discuss how respective genres as well as the goals adopted by the translator colour the choice of translation strategies, and what advantages and disadvantages are entailed by the selected solutions. Each category is supplemented with case studies of existing translations in the Polish-English language pair.

Definition of Personal NamesEdit

Proper NamesEdit

Personal names, along with e.g. geographical names, names of institutions and titles of books or films, constitute a subgroup of proper names. According to Matthews (1997), a proper name can be defined as "the name of a specific individual or of a set of individuals distinguished only by their having that name"[1]. Proper names are contrasted with common nouns, which refer to whole classes of entities and can be applied to any member of a given class.

In most languages, a distinction between proper names and common nouns is made through orthographic as well as morphosyntactic features ascribed to proper names. In English, these properties include: capitalization, not taking articles or restrictive modifiers, and – usually – being uninflected for number.

Personal NamesEdit

Although the form of personal names may differ significantly around the world, they are used as a means of singling out a person from other people in all cultures and societies. They fulfil the function of both reference and address. Under the label "personal names" we can distinguish first names, middle names, family names, as well as pseudonyms and nicknames. Van Langendonck (2007) presents a classification of this internally diversified group of proper names, proposing the following determinants as the basis of organisation: primary vs. secondary and official vs. unofficial. The outcome of his study is breaking the concept down into three categories:

  1. primary official personal names – first names and family names
  2. secondary official personal names – family names when used as individual names (Obama was a former president), pluralised family names used in reference to the whole family (the Obamas), and official identificatory epithets (e.g. the Second in the name of a king);
  3. secondary unofficial personal names – bynames (i.e. names given to a person by others), pseudonyms, Internet nicknames, etc. (i.e. names that one gives to oneself). (Unofficial names are secondary by nature, thus the category of primary unofficial names is not distinguished)[2].

Meaning of Personal NamesEdit

The question of types of meaning carried by personal names (or, more broadly speaking, proper names in general) has long been a point of interest and disagreement in the academia. Some linguists and philosophers are of the opinion that the essence of proper names lies in their purely referential character and thus exclusively denotative meaning. In his classic definition, Mill states that a proper name is “a word which answers the purpose of showing what thing it is we are talking about, but not of telling anything about it”[3] (1882, p. 36). Therefore, he fully rejects the possibility of certain associations being attached to a given name. In a similar vein, Strawson emphasises that “the use [of a personal name] is not dictated by any descriptive meaning the word may have”[4] (1971, p. 23).

According to the opposing side of the debate, names, despite their mono-referential nature, cannot be perceived as mono-functional or devoid of connotative meaning. It is argued that on the basis of the name itself we are frequently able to obtain information concerning the person’s gender, age, nationality and even ethnic or religious background. For instance, having heard the name Mr Baker, we can infer that its bearer is an adult male who speaks English and has probably heard of Oscar Wilde[5] (Valentine et all 2002, p. 29).

It should be stated that personal names used in reality, which constitute the centre of the above discussion, differ remarkably from names given to fictional characters. In literature, most personal names are selected or invented to serve a specific intention of the author. Their connotative meaning frequently becomes much more apparent, contributing to the characterisation of the character or the construction of the fictional world. The wide repertoire that writers can draw from in this regard – apart from using existing names – include newly-coined names, overtly descriptive names, names with intertextual references and even common nouns used in the function of names.

One’s perception of the meaning of personal names is not insignificant to the approach towards their translation. On the assumption that names do not carry any additional meaning beyond their referential function, a logical choice seems to be non-translation, that is keeping all names in their original form. On the other hand, treating names as carriers of additional information and connotations is more likely to result in the translator’s attempts to preserve all the layers of meaning and reaching for a more diverse range of translatory techniques, which are discussed below.

Translation StrategiesEdit

Domestication and FereignizationEdit

Two general strategies, which later on determine the application of more detail-centred techniques in the translation, are domestication and foreignization. Following one of the selected paths is strongly reflected in the treatment of culture specific items: the category which, among others, encompasses proper names. Domestication aims at bringing the source text closer to the reader, which entails employing a style familiar to the target audience as well as adapting and modifying cultural elements. Foreignization, on the other hand, pursues the opposite goal. It assumes preserving the strangeness of the text through keeping original cultural references unchanged and breaking target literary conventions. Instead of moving the text to the reader, the translator moves the reader towards the text.

Jan Van Coillie's Translation StrategiesEdit

Van Coillie distinguishes ten techniques of translating personal names[6]. The methods presented and described in this section will be later on applied to the discussion concerning selected examples.

  1. Non-translation – reproducing the original name; transferring it to the translated text in an identical, unmodified form.
  2. Non-translation + additional explanation – the translator keeps the original name, but decides to supplement it with some extra information, either in the text, or in footnotes. The strategy is suitable if the references attached to the name may not be understandable to the target reader on the basis of the name itself.
  3. Replacement by a common noun – applicable mostly in the case of minor characters/references when the emphasis is placed on the function, not individual traits, of a person; e.g. Adele – angielska piosenkarka.
  4. Phonetic or morphological adaptation – assumes modifying the form of the name so that it is more in accord with the pronunciation or spelling rules of the target language. Adaptation encompasses rewriting names between different alphabets as well as reproducing the sound of the original name with the use of letters of the target language.
  5. Replacement by a counterpart in the target language – the use of well-established, domesticated forms functioning in the target culture (exonyms); the strategy is possible in reference to common names (Joseph – Józef; Caroline – Karolina) and famous, existing figures (Aristotle – Arystoteles).
  6. Replacement by a more widely known name from the source culture or an internationally known name – refers to translating names of authentic people; the translator aims at keeping the “foreign feeling” of a name but at the same prioritizes its recognisability to the reader (e.g. Antoine Griezzman – Christiano Ronaldo).
  7. Substitution – replacement by a local name which is not connected to its original counterpart (e.g. Horton – Konstanty).
  8. Translation – refers to names which carry specific connotation. The translator reproduces the original connotative meaning, preserving the functions the name fulfils: the evoked image, emotion or humorous effect (e.g. White Which – Biała Czarownica).
  9. Replacement by a name with another or additional connotation – used when the translator recognizes the connotative meaning of the original name and wants to preserve the multidimensionality of the author’s choice; however, rendering the same connotation proves difficult or impossible in the target language (e.g. Cheshire Cat – Kot Dziwak).
  10. Deletion – omission of a name; possible only in the case of minor characters, especially when their name conveys some untranslatable puns or connotations.

Personal Names in Different Genres: Case StudiesEdit


In non-fiction, the tendency for leaving personal names untranslated is the strongest among all literary genres. As the names refer to existing people, and rarely bear descriptive meaning, in most cases it is not needed – or, even undesirable – for them to undergo any modifications. This rule, however, is not free of exceptions, especially in regard to internationally famous individuals and historical figures. Sovereigns, saints and popes as well as renowned artists, writers and philosophers are often known in different countries under different names. When dealing with such instances, a preferred translatory strategy is the use of an exonym, that is a well-established, domesticated counterpart of a foreign name in the target language. Thus, Jan Paweł II will be translated into English as John Paul II, and the name William of Orange will become recognizable for the broader Polish audience only when translated into Wilhelm Orański.

Another departure from the “non-translation” principle in non-fiction pertains to names which come from languages based on non-Latin alphabets, such as Russian or Arabic. Due to differences in phonetic rules and divergent transcription systems, romanized versions of such names can vary significantly in spelling across Latin script languages. For example:

  • Mohammed (Eng.) – Mahomet (Pl.)
  • Emelian Pugachev (Eng.) – Jemieljan Pugaczow (Pl.)
  • Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Eng.) – Piotr Czajkowski (Pl.)
  • Saddam Hussein (Eng.) – Saddam Husajn (Pl.)
  • Kim Il Sung (Eng.) – Kim Ir Sen (Pl.)

In some language pairs, the discrepancy in the order of first names and surnames needs to be taken into account. Chinese, Korean and Hungarian constitute examples of languages which diverge from the most common Western pattern and place surnames as the first element of a person’s full name. The question then arises whether target readers will be able to recognise the function of respective items correctly.

National Geographic articleEdit

The below table presents the Polish translation of personal names used in the article "King James Bible" by Adam Nicolson. Based on the collected examples, two general translatory strategies can be observed, which confirm the previously discussed tendencies. While most personal names are left in their original forms, the names of monarchs and saints are replaced by Polish equivalents.


(Adam Nicolson)


(translator unknown)

Rome Wager Rome Wager non-translation
William Tyndale William Tyndale non-translation
John Layfield John Leyfield non-translation
George Abbot George Abbot non-translation
Hadrian à Saravia Hadrian a Saravia non-translation Polish version is slightly simplified in terms of spelling as it omits the diacritical mark à. (Neither English nor Polish uses this mark in their script.)
Richard „Dutch” Thomson Richard „Dutch” Thomson non-translation Not translating the pseudonym "Dutch" is a questionable choice as it carries descriptive meaning and gives some additional information about the person.
Sir John Selby sir John Selby non-translation
Lincoln Abraham Lincoln non-translation + addition In Poland, Abraham Lincoln is frequently referred to with his full name.

Consequently, the addition of the first name makes it easier for the target reader to identify the person.

James VI Jakub VI counterpart in the TL
Elisabeth I Elżbieta I counterpart in the TL
St. Paul Święty Paweł counterpart in the TL
Haile Selassie Hajle Sellasje counterpart in the TL/

phonetic adaptation

Originally, the name of the Ethiopian emperor comes from Amharic, which is based on the Geʽez script. Polish and English use different transcriptions of the name.

Adult FictionEdit

Pan TadeuszEdit

Pan Tadeusz is an epic poem written by Adam Mickiewicz in 1834 and considered a classic of Polish Romanticism's literature. The comparative analysis of the character names in Polish and English juxtaposes the original with George Rapall Noyes' translation from 1917.

The main conclusion that can be formed based on the undermentioned examples, is that Noyes’ approach towards translating personal names in Pan Tadeusz lacks consistency. Leaving some of the names in the original form while substituting other ones with English equivalents distorts the reality presented in Mickiewicz’s work. In two cases, the inconsistency can be observed even in the treatment of the same name throughout the book. The translator clearly prioritizes rendering the pronunciation of the original names, which can be concluded not only on the basis of his translatory choices, but also the list of Polish pronunciation rules that the English version of Pan Tadeusz was supplemented with. All the same, the modifications in spelling that serve the translator’s goal can be sometimes deemed intrusive, especially if the adapted names refer to real historical figures.


(Adam Mickiewicz)


(George Rapall Noyes)

Tadeusz Soplica /

Pan Tadeusz

Thaddeus Soplica /

Pan Tadeusz

counterpart in the TL +

non-translation / non-translation

Noyes employs two different strategies when dealing with the name Tadeusz: in the text, an English equivalent is used, while in the title the name is left untranslated. The translator justifies his decision with the recognizability of the original title and its common occurrence in works on Poland. Still, two versions of the same name may confuse the reader, or even prevent them from realising who the title refers to.
Jacek Soplica Jacek Soplica non-translation
Sędzia Soplica Judge Soplica translation + non-translation
Telimena Telimena non-translation
Zosia / Zofia Zosia / Sophia non-translation /

counterpart in the TL

In Polish, Zosia is a diminutive of the name Zofia. Using an English counterpart for the official name but leaving the diminutive unchanged makes the two forms very dissimilar. Consequently, the reader may have doubts whether the names refer to the same character.
Wojski Hreczecha Hreczecha, the Seneschal non translation + translation
Hrabia the Count translation
Gerwazy Rębajło Gerwazy Rembajlo adaptation All Polish diacritical marks are omitted in the translation. On (or om) and en (or em) are substituted for the nasal vowels ą and ę to reflect the Polish pronunciation. While such adaptations are acceptable in reference to fictional characters, in the case of authentic figures (such as Henryk Dąbrowski) they misrepresent historical data.
Maciej Dobrzyński Maciej Dobrzynski adaptation
Henryk Dąbrowski Henryk Dombrowski adaptation
Ryków Rykov adaptation The example is representative of the general strategy applied to the translation of Russian names occurring in the poem: they are given as though transliterated from Russian, not with the Polish spelling.

Brave New WorldEdit

Aldus Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is a dystopian novel, representative of the genre of speculative fiction, also called social science fiction. The book revolves around the topic of the clash between technology and nature constitute as well as ethical dilemmas which stem from the prospective scientific progress.

Although at first sight the dominant strategy of dealing with personal names in Bogdan Baran’s version seems to be non-translation, a more thorough analysis shows a wider range of techniques and the translator’s inclination for slight domestication. As the introduced alterations are very subtle, the cohesion in naming characters is maintained despite the employment of multiple strategies.


(Aldous Huxley)


(Bogdan Baran)

Bernard Marx Bernard Marks adaptation Bernard’s surname alludes to Karl Marx, who is also known in Poland under the domesticated version of the name: Karol Marks. The reference to the historical figure is, therefore, preserved.
Helmholtz Watson Helmholtz Watson non-translation
Lenina Crowne Lenina Crowne non-translation
Mustapha Mond Mustafa Mond adaptation
Henry Foster Henryk Foster counterpart in the TL It seems that the translator's decision to use a domesticated equivalent in this case was dictated by the close similarity of both forms.
John John non-translation
Linda Linda non-translation
the Director dyrektor translation The lack of capitalization in the Polish version deprives the word of its individualising function, changing it into a regular common noun.
Popé Popé non-translation

Children's FictionEdit

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandEdit

Written by Lewis Carroll and published in 1865, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is recognized as one of the most popular and multilayered children's books in the world. At the same time, the story of a young girl who falls down a rabbit-hole into a fantasy realm full of anthropomorphic characters and unusual events, actually crosses the boundaries of children's literature, appealing to readers of all ages. In order to demonstrate how the translation of character names can influence the question of dual audience, examples from two Polish translations - by Antoni Marianowicz and Robert Stiller - were juxtaposed in the table below.

The analysis of the examples shows that Marianowicz’s translatory choices result in the creation of the world which is directed more at children than adult readers. The use of diminutives and rhymes as well as rendering originally implied senses as explicit definitely appeal to the young audience, but at the same time simplify the original tenor of the book. Without the net of hidden intertextual references, part of the attraction for adult readers is lost. Stiller, on the other hand, represents the opposite approach, following closely the original names and usually avoiding strong domestication. His translation presents a more universal, less-childlike world. However, faithfulness to the English forms leads to the loss of many connotative meanings, making the character names more sterile. Additional hidden senses, unavailable for children, to a great extent remain incomprehensible also to Polish adult readers – unless they decide to investigate the cultural references of the original on their own account.


(Antoni Marianowicz)


(Robert Stiller)

Alice Alicja counterpart in the TL Alicja counterpart in the TL
Little Bill Biś substitution Zbych substitution
Elsie, Lacie and Tillie Kasia, Jasia i Basia substitution Elsie, Lacie and Tillie non-translation The original names allude to the names of the Liddell sisters, for whom the story was first created. Marianowicz does not preserve the reference in any form. His use of diminutives and rhymes indicates the translator's focus on the child audience.
the Cheshire Cat Kot-Dziwak replacement by a name

with another connotation

Kot z Cheshire *translation The English name refers to the idiomatic expression: “to grin like a Cheshire cat”, which means "to smile really widely". The translators did not manage to keep the same descriptive quality of the name. The strategy of translation employed by Stiller entails the loss of the original connotations. The word dziwak, on the other hand, is quite pejorative and may undermine the importance of philosophical points frequently raised by the character.
the March Hare Szarak bez Piątej Klepki translation (with more explicit


Zając Marcowy *translation Due to the reference to the idiom "as mad as a March hare", the character's defining quality is emphasised through his name. Marianowicz conveys the original connotative meaning much more explicitly, while Stiller goes for translation which is close to the original form, but does not render the emotive layer to the Polish reader.
the Hatter Kapelusznik *translation Kapelusznik *translation Similarly to the March Hare, the Hatter leads the English reader to an idiomatic phrase: "as mad as a hatter". The strategy of translation transfers the literal, but not connotative meaning of the name.
the Mock Turtle Niby Żółw translation Fałszywy Żółw translation Mock turtle soup is an English dish created in the mid-18th century as a cheaper imitation of green turtle soup. It often uses brains and organ meats such as a head or foot of a calf (in the illustrations the character is depicted as a hybrid of a turtle and calf). In Polish, the soup is most commonly called "fałszywa zupa żółwiowa", which accounts for Stiller's choice.

Horrid HenryEdit

Horrid Henry is a children's book series by Francesca Simon, published since 1994. It follows the everyday life of an ill-mannered 8-year-old boy, notorious for his nasty behaviour and coming up with ideas which, although smart, are usually disapproved by adults.

All child characters in Simon's books are named according to the following convention: the first name is preceded by a descriptive adjective pointing to the defining trait of the character. Both components of the name always begin with the same letter and function as a fixed phrase throughout the story.


(Francesca Simon)


(Maria Makuch)

Horrid Henry Koszmarny Karolek translation + substitution The translator consistently aims at recreating the original naming pattern and maintaining the effect of alliteration. Achieving this goal and, at the same time, rendering the descriptive meaning of the epithet requires the substitution of the first name. Its choice is dictated by the first letter of the Polish adjective. In consequence, the characters' first names are usually unrelated to their English counterparts; however, the connotative meaning and unique stylistic convention are successfully preserved.
Perfect Peter Doskonały Damianek translation + substitution
Moody Margaret Wredna Wandzia translation + substitution
Sour Susan Jędzowata Jadzia translation + substitution
Rude Ralph Ordynarny Olo translation + substitution
Greedy Graham Chciwy Henio translation + substitution
Beefy Bert Muskularny Miecio translation + substitution
Miss Battle-Axe Pani Kat-Toporska translation + adaptation


  1. Matthews, Peter (1997). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 300.
  2. Van Langendonck, Willy (2007). Theory and Typology of Given Names. Berlin [&] New York: Mouton de Gruyter, p. 187.
  3. Mill, John Stuart. (1882). A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence,and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. New York: Harper & Brothers. Vol. I. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27942/27942-h/27942-h.html
  4. Strawson, Peter Friderick. (1971). “On Referring.” In: Logico Linguistic Papers. London: Routlege, pp. 1-21.
  5. Valentine, Tim, Tim Brennen & Serge Brédart. (2002). The Cognitive Psychology of Proper Names: On the Importance of Being Ernest. London & New York: Taylor & Francis.
  6. Van Coillie, Jan (2014). “Character Names in Translation: A Functional Approach.” In: Childrens Literature in Translation. Challenges and Strategies. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 123-139.
  7. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/king-james-bible
  8. https://www.national-geographic.pl/artykul/biblia-krola-jakuba
  9. Mickiewicz, Adam (1834). Pan Tadeusz, czyli Ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu księgach wierszem, Paris, polona.pl.
  10. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pan_Tadeusz
  11. https://archive.org/details/bravenewworld00huxl_1
  12. Huxley, Aldous. (1988). Nowy wspaniały świat. Translated by B. Baran. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
  13. Carroll, Lewis. (1998). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  14. Carroll, Lewis. (1955). Alicja w Krainie Czarów. Translated by A. Marianowicz, Warszawa: Nasza Księgarnia.
  15. Carroll, Lewis. (1990). Przygody Alicji w Krainie Czarów. Translated by R. Stiller, Warszawa: Lettrex.
  16. Simon, Francesa. (1994). Horrid Henry. London: Orion Publishing Group.
  17. Simon, Francesca. (2009). Koszmarny Karolek. Translated by M. Makuch. Kraków: Znak.