Saturday, January 22, 2011

City names

I don't know how city names get translated into different languages. For those that use the Roman alphabet, frequently the spelling is the same and only the pronunciation differs: Paris (PARE-is vs. Pa-REE), Berlin (Ber-LIN vs. Bare-LEEN). But why is Braunschweig (Germany) translated as Brunswick in English? Or Firenze (Italy) as Florence?

My Mandarin teacher and I had a lot of fun this morning reading a sample weather report and trying to identify the cities, most of which she knew only by their Chinese names. Most often the Chinese is just a phonetic representation of the city, e.g. 芝加哥 (Zhī jiā gē) for Chicago, or 巴塞羅那 (Bā sài luó nà) for Barcelona. Tokyo, however, is 東京 (Dōng jīng), literally "eastern capital" in both Japanese and Mandarin. I had a great time trying to guess the city from the Mandarin name; if I couldn't figure it out from pronunciation alone, she'd give me hints like "It's in Canada," and I could usually figure it out.

The only one I absolutely couldn't get was 德黑蘭 (Dé hēi lán), which my teacher said was a major city in Germany; she thought it was the capital. I suggested both Berlin and Bonn, neither of which was right; finally she asked me just to name a bunch of major cities in Germany because she'd know it if she heard it. "It's a very famous city!" I tried Hamburg, Frankfort, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, but to no avail. I thought "Dé hēi lán" sounded a bit like Deutschland, but that didn't make any sense; that's not a city.

Finally, we admitted defeat and looked it up online. 德黑蘭 is Tehran.

"Tehran?!" I exclaimed. "That's not in Germany! That's in Iran! Iran is in the Middle East!"

"Oh, that's why I see it in the news all the time."


bookfraud said...

Ha! I've always wondered about how cities translate into non-Western languages.

How about "King of Prussia, Penn." and "Walla Walla, Wash."? Or "Chatanooga," Sandusky, Ohio," or "Intercourse, Pa.?"

I haven't even talked about the infamous UK cities "Crapstone" "Titty-Ho."

Good to see you blogging again, btw.

Language Lover said...

Thank you! It's nice to be missed.

I imagine Walla Walla would just be translated phonetically. King of Prussia could be literal. As for Intercourse---I really don't want to know.

yuan said...

Dear Ms. Language Lover,

How interesting to read your post "City Names", particuliarly the city of Tehran. Had I known you, I could have told you it is in Iran right away. I was good in geograghy when I was a student in China. By the way, what's Taiwanese language? Do you mean Hokkien dialect? I'd love to discuss more with you in the future.

Language Lover said...

Hello Yuan,

Yes, I mean Taiwanese Hokkien. This is the language I grew up speaking, but I am now studying Mandarin because it is so much more widely used. Thank you for your comment!

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