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It used to be that one would just translate a proper name that was in another language into English when referring to that entity. For example, William the Conqueror, Christopher Columbus, King Philip II of Spain, King John of Portugal, the city of Munich, Vatican City, or the Ivory Coast. Or just look at Pope Francis, who goes by a different name in every country.

But the current king of Spain is not John Charles, and his heir is not Philip. In the English press, he’s Juan Carlos and his heir is Felipe.

Similarly, the country of the Ivory Coast is now insisting that it be called “the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire” in English.

So when did we stop translating proper nouns into English? Is this some part of political correctness or is it a change in diplomatic protocol? How is one to know whether to translate a proper noun into something recognizable in English, or to leave it in the original?

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    I think it is a combination of snobbery and political correctness, so you can imagine I am often torn... And we have the same issue in Dutch. But I always say Peking and Nangking and Canton and Bombay and Madras, and Londen and Parijs. Oddly, cities in Western countries seem to withstand the tide, for now. Note also that historians commonly keep using the translated names for monarchs, so always John of Spain, never Juan. Dutch say Jacobus of England, not James. It's tradition. NB Sadly, a new disease has broken out in Holland: using English translitterations of exotic names... shudders Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 2:31
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    The change started in 1989, with the passing of UN resolution 2173 supporting the self-nomination of all countries, all countries get to name themselves. If you remember it was a consequence of glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 2:33
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    tch., there is also Leghorn, which is a city on the western coast of Tuscany, whose real name is Livorno and it is not a chicken - i.e., gallus gallus domesticus. Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 2:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: Oh haha, oops! I meant Nanking. I can never remember how to spell it and Bangkok. And many a Chinese restaurant cannot either, I believe... Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 16:30
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    @user71815 Pinyin is currently the official transliteration used by mainland China, but the Qing dynasty officially endorsed the postal map romanization, where Beijing is spelled Peking. Some portions of China still prefer the latter, and historically the people of Beijing/Peking endorsed it too. Commented May 3, 2014 at 21:09

2 Answers 2

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Perhaps I'm deluding myself, but I like to believe that retention of (something closer to) the forms of proper names in their language of origin results from a reduction in linguocentrism and an increase in interest in (and respect for) the world's linguistic diversity.

We can see this warming to other languages even in the way Chancellor Merkel's name is pronounced by English speakers: Angela is a perfectly ordinary name in English, but we call Ms. Merkel AHNG-guh-luh, not ANN-juh-luh. Can you imagine anyone referring to President Francois Hollande as Francis Holland? That would sound as strange as calling Giuseppe Verdi Joseph Green.

Another sort of example of this sort of reduction in ethnocentrism and rise in cosmopolitanism has arisen recently in some international athletic events where contestants, e.g. Chinese, who customarily put their surname first rather than last are designated with their names in this order both in speech and writing. Sometimes this difference is cued in writing by the use of capital letters for surnames, so that the Chinese tennis champion is called LI Na. In an earlier era the placement of her surname would have been westernized to Na Li.

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  • The earlier era being the one which Mao Tse-Tung, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Sun Yat-Sen lived in? Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 3:35
  • Chinese names have been written surname-first in English for a while, but there's also the even older habit of using Latinised names for Chinese people such as Confucius, Mencius. Romanisations of Japanese names seem to have changed more recently and Wikipedia still has surname-last entries like Yasujirō Ozu, Hayao Miyazaki.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 22 at 16:01
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Starting at the time of Charlemangne?

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    You mean the ruler who called himself Carolus Magnus, whose eastern subjects called him Karl der Grosse? Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 23:30
  • Ah. I get it. (chuckles to myself) -> +1
    – Jack G
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 22:13
  • While the even older Charles Martel isn't called Charles The Hammer. (Charles being the same in English and French.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 22 at 16:05

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