A bit of background here is important - my country historically had an unfriendly relationship with Germans, then got occupied by the Soviet Union, which really liked to justify everything by saying it's fighting the Nazis (and Russia still does); the occupation ended with an independence movement during which there was a significant, nationally broadcasted concert, which among other things, had plenty of old patriotic songs. I cut a recording of the said concert into individual songs and uploaded it to Youtube. I also have been trying to add lyrics to the songs and translate them to English.

Although I do want the meaning to be as close to the original as possible, my aim is for people to understand the general idea of the lyrics, not to be too literal and use terms that don't really exist in English. I obviously also don't want anyone to be able to misinterpret it as showing support to any foreign regimes and such, especially given that many older people probably have warm and fuzzy memories about the concert.

Now here's the problem - the original lyrics have a word that literally means the land one (or a group of people) was born in and can mean just that, but also has patriotic connotations. I translated it as motherland and somebody in the comments complained that it should be fatherland, along with a snark, that they quickly edited out, that I picked a Russian term. There are terms in our language that literally mean fatherland (and no motherland terms). It wasn't used here, but would be good to know if it is appropriate for future reference in any case.

Now I did some quick research:

Motherland - I thought it was the correct English word and that terms associated only with Russia are just mother Russia or mother motherland. I am now seeing plenty of websites suggest it indeed is associated only with Russia.

Fatherland - I had the impression that in English it is strongly associated with Nazi Germany. My research seemed to agree. Besides feeding any Russian trolls, if the association is very strong it might end up being weird, if used in a song that actually is about fighting a German enemy.

For both of these it was suggested that the one corresponding with the original should be used. So now I am thinking it could be used if the original term actually is fatherland or related, but not sure it's the right choice in cases when the original is birth, not father, related.

Homeland - I found several suggestions that it is the most appropriate neutral translation, quickly followed by a note that it is associated with US Homeland security.

Native land - seems like it would be close to original, but I don't think I've ever seen it used "in the wild". I did see it used in some dictonary definitions while doing my research. Wouldn't it be associated with something aboriginal?

The sentence in the particular case is:

The fields of [word] are shrouded in mist.

  • I’d go with the more literal translation, fatherland. People understand translations are what they are, and you shouldn’t fear it casting any Nazi shadows over the song. But if that really does worry you, stick with homeland (though this watery word tends to have a dilutive effect on any paeans which use it). – Dan Bron Nov 11 '18 at 11:57
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    "Homeland" has only slightly been polluted by the existence of DHS. "Fatherland", of course, has a strong association with Nazi Germany (at least in the US). "Native land" would be confusing in the US, since few in this country are natives. – Hot Licks Nov 11 '18 at 13:02
  • Is association between Russia/Soviet Union and motherland as strong as between fatherland and Nazi Germany? If you'd randomly come accross the word anywhere would your first though be that it's about Russia? Nazis are bad, but in this context implying that they were singing about Soviet Union is worse – Risiki Nov 11 '18 at 14:28
  • Not an answer to the general question, but for the particular line mentioned at the end, maybe "fields" could cover the notion of "land" enough to get by with "The fields of our/your forefathers/ancestors are shrouded in mist." (cf: "ancestral fields/lands") – Papa Poule Nov 11 '18 at 17:39
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    @HotLicks While they would perhaps not use it to describe the US, I doubt many Americans would be confused about what “the fields of our native land” means when the context is a translation of a European country. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '18 at 22:01

There isn't anything wrong with native land. (It hasn't been tarnished by association with Germany, Russia, or the American Department of Homeland Security.)

And it is a phrase that has been used for centuries in English. Maybe not as often as the other three phrases, but it's definitely out there "in the wild". For an example from literature, Lord Byron wrote a poem Adieu, Adieu my Native Shore around 1815, which contains the phrase my native land. It is taken from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which is in part autobiographical, so the phrase here refers to England. And in Thomas Hardy's book The Return of the Native, the title character is a native of Egdon Heath, in England, who has returned from Paris.

I suppose if you were using it with respect to a country like Australia or the United States, where white settlers displaced the original natives, some people might think it was insensitive. But otherwise, it should be fine.

  • Looking at the question from an historian's perspective, they would all seem to me to reflect the romantic age of nationalism, which begins in the late-eighteenth century. In France, the country at the centre of it all the word is La Patrie - Allons enfants de la patrie… "Fatherland" as is pointed out, is a German construct - but it doesn't exist in 1790. It arises in the wake of Napoleon's cavalry. – WS2 Nov 11 '18 at 22:33
  • @WS2 The construct ‘fatherland’ is much older than that. As Zebrafish’s answer says, it goes all the way back to the Greeks and the Romans. Greek πατρίς and Latin patria are both derived directly from the word for ‘father’, rather than being compounds involving the word for ‘land’, but the basis and the meaning are the same. The type of nationalism associated with the ‘fatherland’ construct now may be fairly recent, but the word itself and its basic meaning is older. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '18 at 23:39
  • +1 Being a Canadian, I can only point to our national anthem which includes the lyrics "our home and native land." – Jason Bassford Nov 12 '18 at 0:05
  • @JasonBassford I heard just this year your government changed the anthem from "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command". "Our home and native land" will probably be next on the chopping block, with "native" probably being replaced by something else if things continue the way they are, because, well, you aren't real natives. Also congrats on the marijuana legalisation. I mean, if that's your thing. Apparently the second country in the world to legalise it nation-wide. – Zebrafish Nov 12 '18 at 7:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Of course you are right. But the notion of a land, whose physical features, its very soil, its people, their language, the society, were all part of a single patrimony, was essentially an eighteenth-century one. This discussion belongs on the "history" site, but the conception of "homeland" was to all intents an invention, created in order to unite places that otherwise were disparate. Not just Germany and Italy, but pre-Louis XIV, less than 50% of what is now called France spoke anything intelligible to anyone as "French". – WS2 Nov 12 '18 at 10:15

It's true that to a certain extent these words are associated in English with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but these are by no means the only associations, nor should they be.

First of all, I'd just like to point out that one of the major reasons why these words have these associations is not so much because they have been used predominantly by the previous two regimes I've mentioned, but because people in certain parts of the world are exposed to their popular culture rather than being acquainted with facts or knowing about other parts of the world.

To start off, if "homeland" has any mental association with America's Department of Homeland Security (which it may, especially among Americans), it's only possible that this association has existed since 2002, as it was established directly after the September 11 attacks.

The term "fatherland" or something close to it is ancient. In Ancient Greek "patris" can be translated as "fatherland". The Latin word is "patria".

As to "fatherland" acquiring an association of Third Reich Germany, Wikipedia notes that this association began when countries not using the word "fatherland" became acquainted with German propaganda of the era. We can see the meaning of "fatherland" without Nazistic allusions from the current national anthem of Germany, which despite going through some drastic measures of denazification, still maintains in their anthem the line "For the German fatherland!". Nigeria's anthem contains "Nigeria's call obey to serve our fatherland," and was adopted 1978. East Timor's national anthem adopted in 2002 is named "Fatherland". Some countries' official motto include the word (English translation) "fatherland", including Portugal, Cameroon, Dominican Republic, Latvia and Liechtenstein. And here is a list of populations who refer to their country as the fatherland.
Groups that refer to their native country as "fatherland"

As to "motherland", here's how the dictionaries define it:

1.One's native land.
2.The land of one's ancestors.
American Heritage Dictionary

2.another word for fatherland
Collins Dictionary

Random House Kernernman Webster's Dictionary defines it as "mother country". Here is a list of definitions of "mother country", in case you want to consider it. "mother country" makes sense to me, in same way your mother tongue is the language you're born into.

Mauritius adopted its national anthem titled "Motherland" in 1968. Monserrat's national song "Motherland" was adopted in 2014. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean.

Also, about your point that "native land" sounds like land belonging to aborigines, the "native" is supposed to mean "of one's birth". At the bottom I've shown three national anthems containing "native land" in untranslated English, meaning just this, land of one's birth.

The fact that "fatherland" and "motherland" seem to have been hijacked or perverted through two particular regimes should not cause you to worry about appearing to endorse either's politics. If people were more accustomed to other cultures and words they would be more immune from having these words elicit negative emotions, and seeing them as mainly products of Nazism and Soviet communism, which most definitely they are not.

I personally think it's appropriate to reappropriate these terms for what they really mean. The only way to do justice to your country's patriotic songs are to do an accurate translation. The only way to maintain these two particular words "fatherland" and "motherland" without them continuing to be tainted with these two political ideologies is to rehabilitate them.

If you're worried about appearing to support a particular politics just by using these words, I would strongly suggest, given the above information of the way these terms are used in non-pejorative ways, that you not hesitate in doing an accurate translation. If, on the other hand you wish to do it out of respect for those who are particularly sensitive to these particular words, then that's another matter. Also, I would have your same suspicion that the people posting these comments are trolls.

Some examples from countries' national anthems (All have English as either de facto or de jure official language:

United States: "Land of the free, home of the brave".

Australia: "Our home is girt by sea.... our land abounds in nature's gifts...

Canada: Our home and native land! (Note the French version literally translates to "land of our ancestors/forefathers/forebears")

Antigua and Barbuda: To safeguard our native land

Sierra Leone: Singing thy praise, O native land.

New Zealand: God defend our free land.

  • Sometimes words can't be rehabilitated. I think at this point it's completely impossible for gay and chauvinism to return to their original meanings, and I suspect that in English, the same is true of fatherland. – Peter Shor Nov 11 '18 at 23:50
  • @PeterShor You may be right. I certainly hope not. I read in Germany the term doesn't have the negative connotations it seems to have in English. Also, Nigeria adopted their national anthem in 1978, with the lyrics written in English as far as I know. Their country is called their fatherland. You would expect by 1978 any pejorative meaning "fatherland" was to get would've occurred by that time. There are probably other examples I haven't noticed. – Zebrafish Nov 12 '18 at 0:25
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    @Zebrafish: In present day German, anyone who uses Vaterland in reference to Germany is immediately suspect. Heimatland 'homeland' does not raise eyebrows. – KarlG Nov 12 '18 at 11:22
  • @KarlG Does this mean when they sing "Für das deutsche Vaterland!" in the anthem they feel a bit weird? Or is that completely different? I mean if Vaterland is something you don't usually say without becoming suspect, I'm just wondering whether singing it is OK. – Zebrafish Nov 12 '18 at 19:03
  • The national anthem is an exception, though there are objections to its gender-specific language. – KarlG Nov 13 '18 at 0:23

The most neutral option seems to be homeland, but I understand the association with the United States.

Why not use the slightly less poetic alternative to land to avoid that association, and go for home country?

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