Translating Names

Translating Names March 31, 2014

Charles Häberl has blogged about an issue that translators regularly face, and which we must deal with as we work towards the final version of our translation of the Mandaean Book of John (or as it might perhaps better be called, The Doctrine of John or The Teaching of John).

How are names best translated?

When the Mandaean text is clearly referring to Jesus, presumably using any rendering other than “Jesus” in English would cause confusion. But doing that will miss the distinctive form of the name in Mandaic. And what about Miriai? Is that close enough to “Mary” to deserve to be rendered that way?

You will recall me blogging about some other, related translation issues previously.

When it comes to names and titles that have no existing English equivalent, what is best done then? Should one try to get the reader to pronounce the name in English as closely to the Mandaic pronunciation as possible?

Along those lines, I suggested somewhat facetiously that Hibil be rendered by the Welsh name Hywel, which is not far off in how it is supposed to be pronounced. But those who don’t know that Welsh name might still mispronounce it “High-well.” And the fact that this is the Mandaic form of the name “Abel” won’t come through in any of those renderings.

How do you like to see names rendered? What do you prefer to be in the text, and what if anything do you look for in footnotes? What different approaches have you encountered in the rendering of other texts? If you have ever read a Biblical translation that rendered familiar names in unfamiliar ways, how did that affect your reading experience?

Click through to read Charles’ post, and then please do comment, whether here, there, or in both places!

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  • Just Sayin’

    I suggest using traditional British names such as Cholmondeley, Cockburn, Berkeley, Featherstonhaugh, St. John Smith, Urquhart and, dare I say it, McGrath. That way, absolutely no one in North America will get them right!

    • arcseconds

      I have wondered for some time whether McGrath might be a /məgrɔ/ or a /məgrɑ/ rather than a /məgraθ/ 🙂

      (feel free to correct my IPA if you can… I never learnt it entirely well, and it’s been a little while…)

      • /məˈɡrɑː/ is the pronunciation in Ireland. One of the others is more common in other countries where English is spoken, such as Australia. The third is how I usually pronounce it so that I don’t get puzzled looks from my fellow Americans. 🙂

  • Michael Wilson

    I recommend the traditional English spellings. It is a sort of lie that we tell about our work when we use phonetic language. Most of the names given for ancient people of other languages in English publication are not spelled correctly to account for their pronunciation. However they are overwhelmingly well known, so except for something aimed exclusively to a narrow band of experts, using spelling that genuinely reflects the verbal form think does more to confuse the reader and disengage them from the material. Now, if Jesus and Mary are understood in fundamentally different ways in Mandeism than from Christianity then an alternate spelling could be in order to divorce the reader from the other associations. For instance I dislike when the underworld gods of other societies are called its satan, because satan burdens what is likely a very different idea with our understanding of Christianity’s satan.

    But I would include a foot note explaining the pronunciation of the actual name and not just the customary symbol we use for it. That sort of thing should be preserved out of respect for the culture these people came from.

  • arcseconds

    I rather do like Charles’s suggestion.

    I would prefer preserving at least something of the Mandaic pronunciations. If I’m reading a text like this, I prefer to get the impression that I’m engaging with the literature and culture on their terms (as much as possible without making life too difficult for me…), not having it made seem like it’s stories and people I’m already familiar with.

    I would imagine anyone interested in reading the Doctrine of John (maybe you could translate the title as Johannesslehre? Admittedly it’s not English, but ‘Lehre’ is alternatively translated as ‘doctrine’ and ‘teaching’, so presumably it’s an accurate translation :-)) would not be put off by unfamilar names.

    Also, most people (well, OK, not most people, but many people, and most people who are likely to read this book) are familiar with the fact that Muslims call Jesus ‘Isa’ and Mary ‘Marīam’, aren’t they?

    • Probably (answering your latter question), and it has been proposed that Isa and the Mandaic form of Jesus’ name are related to one another, perhaps with the latter having influenced the former.

      I don’t think we’ll go with a German title for our English translation… 🙂