Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's In a (Place) Name?

It all started with a business request. After an overwhelming delivery of a project within a short term, the customer in Russia was happy to hand me over a long list of requirements. The problem: The city names were all written in Russian, and the time to work on the business proposal was very less. He was quick to direct me towards Google to address this issue and get going as quick as I can. Quite a good idea. It was surprisingly quick. The one special kind of translation Google has that Yahoo hasn't: the ability to translate a file. Select and upload. The good thing is that Google tries not to mess up the formatting of the file (mine was an Excel table with place names. Good job, Google!). But the problem wasn't over.

Google Translator's job is to translate. Literally every word of it. Well, if the entry is a sentence, the Translator does the additional job of making sense out of it and presents a clear message. Since I'm using translators almost every day since the past five years or so, I have learned the art of communicating with simple messages so that the person using a translator at the other end understands my idea well. But translating names is a different ball game altogether. It just needs the expression of the original term in a different language, not the exact meaning. So I had to write back to the customer citing that English place names is necessary, because I am not able to locate many cities in the map. Try translating the city name “Yellowknife” to Chinese and ask a Chinese man to locate it in the map of Canada!

With limited time to demarcate the city areas, it was a literal firefight to locate city names like “Electric steel” and “Queen + Anniversary” on the map. I shook up my hitherto inactive Russian basics and got the job done. Two days after I finished the job, the apologetic customer (himself a Chinese) got back to me with a detailed list of city names in English. 

The follwoing weekend, while traveling on the Metro during my weekend pilgrimage to the library, I stumbled upon the announcements in English and Hindi:

What if the English messages were just translations of original messages in Hindi? What if they tried Google to make instant translations? Will they face the same trouble that I did? I was curious. I was thinking and laughing to myself during the following part of journey. Imagine this:

NOIDA Sector Pandrah
NOIDA Sector Fifteen

Agla station New Ashok Nagar hai
“The next station is New No-Unhappy City”

Mayur Vihar
“Peacock Park”
Akshar Dhaam station
“Letter-House station”

Pragati Maidaan
“Development Ground”

Rajiv Chowk
“Former Prime Minister breathless!” (Oops! That looks like designing cryptic clues to a crossword puzzle.) Sorry, I made that up.

Check-out the Metro Map and you will know what I was thinking.

Does your city/country/locality also have such names that sounds funny when translated? Feel free to share.

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