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An Esperanto Atlas, Anyone?
It seems amazing to me now, but if you went to high school in England in the 1980s you were allowed to give up all foreign languages at age 14. In the pursuit of an easy life, that’s exactly what I did, opting instead to do Business Studies. I’m sure all of that basic accountancy has been useful over the years (although my bank manager might have a different opinion) but I know having a working knowledge of at least one more language other than Geordie-Scots Anglo-Saxon would have inevitably been more valuable. Despite this obvious handicap, it is amazing to look back over the last twelve months and think that I have worked on no fewer than six atlases in which English is not the main language. In (English) alphabetical order these were Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Romanian.
Non-English language atlases
Clearly the old adage that “everyone speaks English these days” isn’t entirely true, no matter how much influence our cousins from across the Atlantic cast around the globe. In the world of atlases, especially at Collins Geo, there has never been more interest in non-English language products. With this in mind we are always striving to create an international atlas, one that can be used in as many markets as possible, or at least one that is easy to adapt to different markets. But is it possible to create a genuinely international atlas? If not in English could Collins Geo make an Esperanto atlas? It would certainly make my job a lot easier and after all, the translations already exist;
for example. Or could we even consider Volapük as the starting language (now there’s something to Google or wiki).
Times Universal Atlas of the World
Native and international name forms
Even with one of these “neutral languages”, is it actually feasible to have a whole atlas in one single language? It might seem obvious that Norwegians would like to be able to read their atlases in Norwegian, or Frenchmen would like theirs in French, but the simple desire to be able to read in one’s native language is not the only reason for translation. These days many different issues from user accessibility to political correctness must be considered, and more and more the solution might not simply be the publisher’s host language. Indeed, there are often many more languages being used on a map than first meets the eye. Most Times atlases use local name forms wherever possible, so that means even though these atlases are published in English, they routinely have Spanish names (
), Italian names (
), and so on. (The English conventional names will always appear as well, in brackets or at any rate in the index). Mind you, not all atlases produced in the UK follow this policy. Many of them promote the well known “conventional” forms such as
as the main names. This can be especially true if the atlas is for a younger audience where everyday usage and the geographical locational function of the atlas are often vastly more important than the niceties of language.
Times Universal Atlas, Dutch edition. Has a low proportion of local names, opting for the Dutch versions e.g.
, with no reference to their local name forms.
Times Universal Atlas, English edition. Takes a “middle way” using English conventional names for
and showing the local versions in brackets.
Times Universal Atlas, Norwegian edition. Uses a high proportion of local names, e.g.
and translates major international features such as France (Frankrike).
Translation and transliteration
While decisions on which names to translate and which to leave in local form are often subjective, taken by the individual atlas publishers considering company policies and final user requirements, some languages always need to have a form of translation to be comprehended at all. Most Europeans for example, would find text in any of the Chinese languages largely unintelligible, as the Chinese characters bear no relation whatsoever to the letters of the Roman alphabet. In these cases the word needs to be converted (sometimes phonetically spelled out) for the user in their own language. This process is called transliteration. The process aims to be very precise, so that it can be a two way process, effectively meaning each version of the word acts as a code to create the other version. To make matters more complicated, there are different transliterations for different languages to account for things like differences in phonetics, after all people in Spain pronounce “Jesus” differently to people in the UK.
Place name policy
All of this is complicated by individual needs and desires of the people making and buying the final atlases. Collins and Times atlases have
policies decided by an impartial Policy Committee. Other publishers have vested interests in names being shown one way or the other. Sometimes they relate to ease of use, as mentioned above, but sometimes more unusual reasons drive these decisions. One such example can be seen at work in the Afrikaans atlas I worked on this year. This atlas was published alongside an English language atlas into the South African market. For the Afrikaans product, every single English name found around the world was translated into Afrikaans, irrespective of local language; thus many lake names in Canada were translated into Afrikaans while Spanish lake names were left in Spanish. This was done to produce a visible difference between the Afrikaans and English atlases in markets where political sensitivities dictated this to be more important than a standardised policy for all languages in the same product.
An atlas for all languages or just one?
With all of these issues in play, creating an international atlas is almost impossible. Conversely, saying an atlas (other than the most basic atlases) is in one language or another is also ingenuous. The only actual elements of an atlas which are definitively translated into the users language are those descriptive pieces of text found in the introductory paragraphs of thematic pages, or instructional items like how to use an index. Unfortunately, although there are people in Collins who can translate these elements, I’m not one of them so I rarely pick up any useful language skills from the atlases I work on. Ultimately, it means that if I went on holiday to
and I fell out of a boat into a
, I could try to swim to the nearest
, but I wouldn’t know how to shout for help as I did so…
Keith Moore, Head of Cartographic Services, Collins Geo.
If you have any comments or opinions on name forms used in atlases please click on the comments link below.
on 21 May 2009
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