What not to translate

Published on 19/01/2021

When translating a text of any kind, you should pay attention to the elements that should be left in the original language. The case of proper names, city names or company names should be analysed with caution, especially if machine translation is used.

Índice de contenidos

Index of contents

Index du contenu


  1. Names of natural persons
  2. Units of measurement
  3. Company and brand names
  4. City names

The latter may tend to translate everything and only a human translator will be able to make certain distinctions in translation. Here are a few rules to follow to know what to translate and what not to translate. Hiring a translation company can make your life much easier.

Names of natural persons

Names of natural persons

Personal names, in most cases, are not translated. They are only transcribed into the alphabet used in the target language.

There are exceptions for names of historical figures that have an official translation. One example is the famous Christopher Columbus, whose real name is actually Cristoforo Colombo. If in doubt, you can simply consult the section on proper names in the corresponding dictionary.

In literature, in the book Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien for example, you may also come across some translated names. In this particular case, it is a very complex work that has been the subject of several versions. The author, who is also a philologist, gave a number of recommendations for the translation of his books and wrote a guide for translators.

Units of measurement

Units of measurement

Units of measurement are rarely translated, but transposed. It is easier for a Spaniard to understand that we are 1.55 metres tall instead of five feet one inch (i.e. 61 inches).

Be careful not to make miscalculations in your transpositions. Depending on the technical nature of certain texts you have to translate, you may quickly find yourself in complex situations requiring time-consuming adaptations.

If you need a guarantee of accuracy for technical texts, it is always best to contact a recognised translation agency such as AbroadLink Translations.

Company and brand names

Company and brand names

On this article of the Journal of International Consumer Marketing, you can read a very amusing article that shows us how to translate brand names effectively. This research tests the effectiveness of three brand name

creation/translation approaches—phonetic, semantic, and suggestive— in influencing consumers toward the brand in an emerging market in two separate studies.

When translating into Chinese or Arabic, brand or company names are also transcribed, but not translated.

Therefore,the rule for translating company and brand names is simple: only translate when the original names have a pejorative, even ridiculous, meaning in the target market.

City names

City names

City names are not translated except in cases where there is an official translation for important or historic cities.

While the translation of the names of well-known cities does not pose any particular difficulty, this is not the case in some countries with more than one linguistic area.

In Switzerland and Belgium, for example, many cities have completely different names depending on the language.

There is also a fashionable phenomenon in the translation of some cities, which consists of restoring the original name. Today, for example, it is correct to say "Mumbai" instead of "Bombay" or "Beijing" instead of "Peking".

To conclude, I will answer the question "Should we translate everything?" with a firm and definitive no. When using machine-translated texts, you should always take into account the checking of names and units of measurement.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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