Naming Buildings Across Languages

Jun 22,2018

An ongoing problem in translating event information, or anything that involves giving directions to a specific location, is the rendering of the names of shops, services centres, and other establishments housed in buildings. Most of the information that comes into my hand to translate has the name of the building or facility in Japanese, which, if I'm lucky, is local enough that I've seen the outside of the place myself and remember what it calls itself in English as well as the official Japanese name. When such places have English names on the door, it's easy: The name that appears in the English translation is the one borne on the door or signpost outside the building itself, and anyone who doesn't read Japanese can find the place just by looking for the English name. Problem solved.

We run into difficulty only when I don't know the place, or don't remember what it calls itself in English if I have seen it, and I have to refer to the establishment's web site, if they have one--and if not, to simply romanize the Japanese name. In other words, in the vast majority of building and establishment names in connection with I'm asked to translate. (I don't get out much, and when I do, I try to avoid the places where most of the people are.)

A few years ago I acquired a smidgin of internet fame by being recruited to trudge through the rain in Yonago and inspect the English renderings appearing on street signs, to see if they were natural enough English as well as to make sure there was a modicum of consistency for similar types of establishments, and that the name on the sign matched the name on the web site, if applicable.

We can now say with greater than 80% confidence that the names of the officially-sanctioned facilities within the City of Yonago bear identical English names on their storefronts, their web sites, and the municipal street signs providing direction to the place. These particular buildings will be relatively easy to find by just about any lost tourist wandering through the area with a name or a map.

Outside of Yonago, however--and indeed, even there, for all the establishments we didn't inspect--there remains the possibility the storefront, the web site, and the street sign might have three different English names for the same place. Or one, two, or all of those may be only in Japanese.

If they are all in Japanese, the logical solution seems to me to simply romanize the Japanese--the building that houses us is referenced as Fureai Kaikan, because that's what it says on the building itself and on the web site, and few other references to it exist--and if a tourist cannot read Japanese, he can, perhaps, if his pronunciation is intelligible, ask around for the building in question. There remains the problem that the pronunciation of many an international traveler is hardly intelligible to the locals, and the poor traveler certainly won't be able to find the place by looking for the Japanese characters.

Another possibility is that there may happen to be an English name somewhere near the building, but it appears neither on the establishment's web site nor anywhere else anyone is likely to know, least of all me. Then the poor traveler will exclaim, upon finally finding the place, "The name in English is right there on the door! Why is it only in Japanese in the English directions they gave me?"

Outside of traveling personally to every location likely to have some relevance for us, I cannot think of an infallible solution at this moment, but I am working on something of a database, and I would like input in making it as complete as possible. At the very least, I would like to be informed if I translate something without an English name where one exists, or use an English name different from the one commonly used to reference the place in question.

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