What's In A Name?

A short conversation came up on Twitter about whether Japanese names should be translated.  I found some of the point that were made interesting, and it got me thinking.  When you hear someone’s name, do you think about it’s meaning?  Pick up a baby book of names, and you’ll see that every name, even our English names have another meaning.  But because it’s a name, we don’t consider the meaning important.  Why should translators do the same to Japanese names?

Yes, many of the Japanese names have mundane meanings, such as Sakura, meaning Cherry Blossom, or Yuki, meaning snow.  But are you going to call someone named Mirai, Future?  Just because that is the literal translation, that doesn’t make it the best interpretation.  My name, Lori, means “laurel tree symbolic of honor and victory”.  That doesn’t mean I want to be called “Laurel tree”.  If you were introduced to someone named Sakura, you wouldn’t go around calling them Cherry Blossom, would you?  That’s not their given name.  When a word becomes a name, it transcends it’s original meaning, and becomes something more than that.

Translators that change a person’s name to it’s literal meaning are really missing the point.  When something is being translated, there needs to be more than a literal translation.  The translator has to do some interpretation to convey the meaning as well.  And just because someone’s name also means elephant doesn’t mean that’s how the people in that culture will see it.  So we really shouldn’t either.  It’s another case of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

4 thoughts on “What's In A Name?”

  1. The thing is that just about every name in every language means something, with rare exceptions (I’ve heard that Mormons often just make up names out of syllables they like the sound of, but that’s unusual). My name means “pure”; the name Edgar means “happy spear”; Eve means “life”; et cetera. Translate Western names literally and you’d have a real mess on your hands.

    Which just makes it all the more clear that translating Japanese names is usually unnecessary and intrusive. Every so often there’s a name whose meaning is actually significant in the story — but not that often.

  2. Heh. Since I started this off in a way on twitter, I’ll make the point that I felt it wasn’t a problem to translate “Ahiru” as “Duck” in Princess Tutu because she *is* a duck. I never made such claims for Sakura (from Card Captor Sakura), but those were the example used in favor of not translating names.

    And I’m also not in favor of translating Sakura as a name because the character *isn’t* actually a cherry blossom. But I felt differently about the “Ahiru” example because when they call her “Ahiru” I think we’re meant to think of her as “Duck” both when she’s a girl (and very duck-like) and when she is actually in duck form. Which is why for me it is a case by case basis thing, not a hard and fast rule either way.

  3. I really can’t agree. It’s too much of a localization for me, liking calling Shinichi from Detective Conan “Jimmy”, but everyone else by their Japanese name. Calling Ahiru “Duck” just continually emphasizing what she is instead of who she is. Yes, she might really be a duck, but isn’t the story more about what she does than what she is?

  4. That’s one of my real hot button issues. If they localize it too much, they can count me out. If I wanted to read an Americanized story, I’d buy American comics. The point is reading Japanese manga, I want 100% uncensored, uncut, unmolested, unmangled, just a straight, 100% accurate translation. If you can’t provide that, you can forget ever getting one red cent of my money.

    I’m the customer and I’m always right.

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