Why translate cities and person names?



I come from a language that preserves the original names of cities and especially personality names, so I was very surprised to find in Italian translation of this particular substantive types. I even once had an argument with one Italian friend about Bruto; he didn't understand that his original name was Brutus.

A few examples: cities - Munich (Monaco), Stuttgart (Stoccarda), Paris (Parigi), Frankfurt (Francoforte), historical figures - Louis XIV (Luigi XIV), Henry VIII (Enrico VIII) or other names - Michael (Maicol) etc. In English there isn't any great figure called John Brown (Giordano Bruno), so why the Italian language creates such confusion by doing the reverse?

I'm not referring to the slight gender adaptations like Dublin (Dublino), but to the very brutal ones like Munich, which I actually confused with the french Monaco for very long time.

My question: is this a rule, it is done nowadays as well, or it refers just some old adaptations and why it is done? I think there is a loss of meaning in this adaptation and I had difficulties discussing with Italians about famous historical figures because of this.


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

Reputation: 874

Your argument doesn't hold for cities and peoples' names. It IS true that, under the fascist area, a lot of foreigner terms were forcibly translated to create a stronger nationalistic culture (Superman -> Nembo Kid), but it's completely unrelated to what you are describing.Diego Martinoia 2016-03-30T13:31:36.327

4It would be Jordan Brown, not John. Are you sure an English speaker will understand a Greek talking about Efklidis, or conversely if a Greek hears Euclid?egreg 2013-12-15T10:48:51.083

7I may be wrong, but I have the impression that, at least about person names, Italian used to transpose more in the past than now, see Francis Bacon become Francesco Bacone. I don't think this tendency to transpose is so strong any more.martina 2013-12-15T13:09:15.363

Did you discover what's Benátky? ;-)egreg 2013-12-15T15:03:22.463

@egreg yes, very funny thing. I wouldn't have guessed it in 1 million years.symbiotech 2013-12-15T15:08:59.267

@martina yes Francesco Bacone was the initial example that really made laugh, but I forgot him when I wrote the postsymbiotech 2013-12-16T20:21:46.450

3@symbiotech what is your language? I was under the impression that in all languages, more or less, (some) foreign city names get adapted...giorgian 2014-02-07T15:25:21.910

1And then you realize that the guy who goes by "Pope Francis" in English-speaking countries is the same guy Italians call "Papa Francesco" - but in the official language of his minuscule country, he's just Franciscus.Tobia Tesan 2015-03-18T20:32:59.313



That München in Italian becomes Monaco is not really strange: looking in Wikipedia we discover that

Its native name, München, is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat of arms.

I'm not sure you'll recognize the famous Italian city that Czechs call Benátky. I don't know what's your native language, but all languages I know of do such adaptations.

Every language has its own way to adapt foreign words; big towns (mostly capital cities, and there were many of them in Europe) and famous people are good candidates for such adaptations.

The results are quite strange. For instance, København becomes

  • Copenaghen (Italian)
  • Kopenhagen (German)
  • Copenhagen (English)
  • Kopenhaga (Albanian)
  • Copenhague (Spanish)
  • Copenhague (French)

For Italian one should remember that Latin used to be the European lingua franca and adapting words from Latin to Italian was too easy. So Brutus and Caesar become Bruto and Cesare. By the way, Caesar (as a title) became Kaiser in German and Царь in Russian.

There are stranger adaptations than München > Monaco. The Bavarian city of Regensburg is called in Italian Ratisbona. The Latin name of the town (which was founded by the Romans) was Castra Regina. Its modern name means “fortress by the Regen”, the river is named after the Roman town. Why Ratisbona? Because there was a Celtic village nearby called Radasbona or something like that and the town, for some time, was called with the Celtic name and so came to be known in Europe.

The tendency to adapt the phonetics of foreign names is weaker than it was, say, forty years ago, when still the “official” name of New York was Nuova York. Traditional names are retained, of course: it would sound strange hearing Vado a Paris e poi a London.

But nobody speaks about il principe Guglielmo, to mean the present Duke of Cambridge. However, it's always il principe Carlo for his father. Maybe it depends on the easiness of adapting the name: the former and the present Kings of Belgium are Alberto and Filippo, in Italy. I don't know how the present King of the Netherlands is referred to in newspapers, but he's probably Willem-Alexander. Apart from monarchs, the tendency is to retain the original name for contemporary famous people.


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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Speaking of Czech: Mnichov, Kodaň and Řezno :)yo' 2014-02-24T18:08:31.340

1Aquisgrana - Aachen is another interesting example!laureapresa 2015-02-25T08:33:16.940

@writingthesis Which is Aix-la-Chapelle in French.egreg 2015-02-25T08:35:02.023


This is done in every language:

  • English - Rome
  • Russian - Рим, Людовик XIV
  • Finnish - Rooma, Ludvig XIV
  • German - Rom, Ludwig XIV

The reason for this is the same everywhere I suppose. Not everyone knows every language pronunciation, actually far from that, so nouns get adapted by the speakers to make them easier to say and refer to.


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

Reputation: 1 199

Actually, in German (at least in Switzerland) you say "Louis 14 (quatorze)", only schoolbooks would use Ludwig XIV. Which brings an interesting situtation: You write Ludwig XIV, but you read it (out) /speakIt as Louis XIV.Stefan Steiger 2016-03-30T08:50:02.537

yes I understand the logic of pronunciation, but other languages have slight modifications, not Munich-Monaco, which could have been Munich-Munico, or Francoforte which could have been simple Francfurtosymbiotech 2013-12-15T00:11:03.770

1@symbiotech In the case of Monaco, I'm not sure how the process was, but "Francfurto" would not be acceptable according to Italian syllable construction and consonant clusters, it was adapted to have a proper italian spelling.Alenanno 2013-12-15T00:24:40.793

3I'm intrigued by this, because it doesn't seem to be consistent rule. Ex "re Giorgio Guglielmo Federico di Hannover III" vs "George Bush", not Giorgio Bush and "per fortuna" not Giorgio Cespugliosymbiotech 2013-12-15T01:22:36.500

also there are lot of city names that don't respect italian spelling, that weren't adapted. Ex: Milwaukee, Johannesburg (which could have been easy called Giovanesburgo :) etc. So my guess it is an old rule, that doesn't apply for today's names. It would be impossible, so only the traditional ones remained.symbiotech 2013-12-15T01:27:46.130

@symbiotech There are manny types of loanwords, not all get adapted. Some are used in their original form (e.g. computer).Alenanno 2013-12-15T11:19:50.927


Every language adapts foreign names to its phonetic system and its morphology, both proper and common names (Munich > Monaco is not that different from beefsteak > bistecca) to be able to pronounce and use them.

Re “other languages have slight modifications”, would you consider Firenze > Florence, Napoli > Naples, Livorno > Leghorn, where at most 2 or 3 phonemes survive, slight modifications? Not to mention España > Spain and so on.

Finally, have you ever checked the German name of “Munich”...?


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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for surnames of European people until XVII century, remember that the people themselves often "translated" their surname into Latin: for example, Gerhard Kremer is usually known as Gerardus Mercator. Italian people then used to think that Latin is just an old way to speak Italian, so they use the modern form and say "Mercatore".

For given names, during Fascism there was a strong force toward italianization of names (just to give an example, my father was born in 1934 and his name was Valter, not Walter, because W was not an Italian letter); the habit went until the late Sixties, with the anchorman Ruggero Orlando who talked of Nuova York instead of New York, but now the use is declining.

As for city names, the other commenters had shown that it is a common thing.


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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I always found Valter or Valterio very amusing given that the actual corresponding Italian name is Gualtiero (no disrespect intended, just a remark on how pointless italianizing names is)Denis Nardin 2016-03-24T15:24:03.850


It happens in most of the languages. The native speakers adapt the pronunciation in accordance with their tongue. Let me give you two examples from a non European perspective

Mangalore is a coastal city in the Indian state of Karnataka. The name of this city is different in different languages

Mangalore in English/ Hindi
Mangaluru in Kannada (Official language of Karnataka state)
Kodial in Konkani (Regional Language)
Kudla in Tulu (Regional Language)
Mangalapuram in Malayalam (Official language of Kerala State)
Maikala in Beary (Regional Language)

Indian state of Kerala has a lot of Catholics who follow the Syrian Rite. Some of their Christian names have evolved to suit the Malayalam (language) tongue.

Jacob -> Chacko
Alexander -> Chandy, Idicula
Job -> Iyob
Anna -> Annamma
Susan -> Shoshanna
George -> Varghese, Geevarghese (St. George is called Geevarghese)

Bharath Bhandarkar

Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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1Interesting examples!egreg 2016-03-24T09:59:21.873


Italians used to translate the names of the cities, with which they had had commercial relationship or something to do in common in XVI and XVII century.
That's why you find Anversa (and not Antwerp) or Lipsia (Leipzig) but Bruxelles or Liverpool remain the same.
It's in the history of those cities.

Fabio Ricci

Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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The names of ruling monarchs, popes or the saints are still very often adapted in many languages. The reason is that these rulers or saints usually assume a Christian name which has a very long tradition of usage and a different, localized form in almost every European language.

The same is with many cities, this usage comes from a long tradition. I personally think it is a thing to cherish instead of taking over an original form.


Posted 2013-12-14T23:35:30.787

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