Translating Your Name into a Foreign Language

What’s in a name?

Our name is a crucial part of our identity. It is usually the first thing we use to introduce ourselves; and if someone forgets or mispronounces it we can feel somewhat hurt. Some people even believe that the name can influence or reflect the person’s character. But what if you are traveling, studying, or working abroad? Should you translate your name into another language so that foreigners can pronounce it?!

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Similar names across languages

Some people are lucky to have more or less ‘international’ names that have similar versions in many languages. For Indo-European languages, these are the names that originated in Ancient Greek history, or in the Bible. Which then spread together with western culture and Christianity. 

Take the name Alexander, for instance. It is Alexander in German, Alexandre in French, Alessandro in Italian, Alejandro in Spanish, Александр (Alexandr) in Russian — the list goes on.

Other such names, among others, are: Mary, Michael, Paul, John. The ‘versions’ of these names can be extremely similar, as in the example above, or quite different. For instance, John is Giovanni in Italian and Hans in German.

Should you use the ‘local’ version of your name when talking to foreigners? It is totally up to you. On the one hand, the ‘local’ version of your name will sound more familiar to people, and they will be more likely to pronounce it correctly and to remember it. On the other hand, if your name is John and you don’t feel like ‘Giovanni’ or ‘Hans’ — you don’t have to. You can simply translate your name instead using the tips below. 

Tips on translating your name 

If your name doesn’t have a version in your target language, or it’s so different you don’t want to use it, you can translate it. Or, to be more exact, transliterate your name. Here are a couple of tips you can use. 

  • Concentrate on the pronunciation. There are some names that sound completely different from what is written on paper (think Sean or Saoirse), which may be very confusing to foreigners. The more phonetically you spell your name, the easier it will be for people to pronounce. 
  • Keep things simple. Eliminate any letters that are not pronounced. 
  • Be consistent. This is particularly important when you need to translate important documents into a foreign language: college application, driver’s license, visa, etc. To avoid confusion, and any bureaucratic problems, it is important to use the same spelling across all the documents you need to translate. Choose the spelling you like, but don’t forget to notify the translation agency you are using to translate the documents. 
  • Be patient. Depending on how long and difficult your name is, and how different the foreign language is from your mother-tongue, foreigners are likely to butcher your name no matter what! They are not doing it on purpose: they are foreigners to you, but your name may sound just as strange and exotic for them. 
  • Don’t be shy. It is okay to politely correct a person if they mispronounce your name (and it is crucial when it comes to misprints in important documents). You can teach each other how to pronounce your names and have some fun!

Translating your name into another language is an interesting process that can be a lot of fun. You can reinvent yourself by using a different version of your name. You can also keep it as close to the original as possible — and maintain your cultural identity with it. 


More on this topic next week! Until then, you may also enjoy…