In many languages it is a convention to translate or at least adapt foreign personal names to the language when discussing foreign people, especially notable and often mentioned people such as foreign regents, popes etc.

Historically, it seems this also used to be more common in English and other European languages. At least in English some of the typical ways this is done are:

  • directly translating some part of the name (like Zimmermann->Carpenter)
  • adopting a form that seems more familiar to the language (Apfelbaum->Applebaum or Bauer->Bower)
  • finding an etymologically related name (Ioannis->John)

When did the modern trend of not translating personal names arise, and what caused it?

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    IIRC prior to the fist world war, the monarch of Germany was usually referred to as Emperor William, but obviously now is remembered with the German name Kaiser Wilhelm. In this case it was presumably a piece of propaganda to make him appear more foreign and easier to hate. I'm not sure when it became a larger trrend though
    – Tristan
    Oct 15, 2021 at 14:16
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    Already Herodotus didn't translate foreign names to Greek, but adjusted them to the Greek phonetics. For example, the name of a Persian king in Old Persian 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠, romanized: Xšaya-ṛšā, meant “ruling over heroes” became Ξέρξης (Xérxēs), an approximate phonetic adaptation, not a translation.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 15, 2021 at 14:28
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    @YellowSky That would be an instance of ‘normalisation type 2’ in the list in the question, which I’d say (not based on any real statistics, just off the top of my head) was the most common in Classical times. The modern practice of staying as close to the original as possible would have given something like Χσαιαρσᾱ instead. Oct 15, 2021 at 15:46

1 Answer 1


There are two different issues here. On the one hand, there is the issue of immigrants, specifically in English-speaking countries, “translating” their names into English, for example “Schuhmacher” becoming “Shoemaker”. This is part of the phenomenon of acculturation. A different issue is the nearly universal principle of not translating the names of people in non-English-speaking countries.

There are just a few exceptions. In the past it was common to translate the names of foreign monarchs; for example “Friedrich der Grosse” becoming “Frederick the Great”. Thus has been largely abandoned, at least in the case of contemporary rulers. However, it is still usual to translate the names of popes, for example the current pontiff is called Francis in England, Francesco in Italy, François in France. The other exception concerns Native American names, which are nearly always translated into English (“Sitting Bull” etc.) rather than cited in their original language. There is no explanation for this other than the most blatant racism.

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    I don’t really see how translated Native American names are that much of an exception. They’re historical names from an era when translation was more common. Contemporary names are not generally translated (Apesanahkwat, Damien Dinéyazhi’, etc.), though of course a lot of people have adopted completely unrelated English names nowadays. Oct 16, 2021 at 12:13
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    @JanusBahsJacquet. Except in the mentioned case of immigration, “translation” of proper names into English is rare in all periods, and when it happens it is generally not real translation but substitution by an etymological equivalent. E.g. Friedrich becomes Frederick and not translated as “Peace-rich”.
    – fdb
    Oct 16, 2021 at 15:46
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    The difference between the two is that Friedrich in German is not a meaning used as a name – it’s just a name that happens to have a transparent meaning. That is, the meaning is clear if you think about it (though it’s not the historical meaning in this case), but when you hear it, you just hear a name, not a noun phrase. Adnames have been more commonly translated (Harald Bluetooth, William the Conqueror, Ivan the Terrible, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks), and Native American names are closer in structure to such adnames, so it’s not wholly surprising that such names are more prone to translation. Oct 16, 2021 at 15:53
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I think I have not seen this for Chinese or Japanese names rendered in English though, except in works of fiction.
    – Jan
    May 9, 2023 at 8:37
  • @Jan What ‘this’ do you mean exactly? Translated adnames? Certainly the English name for 秦始皇帝 (which consists entirely of adnames) varies a great deal – ‘Emperor Qin’, ‘Qin Shi Huang(di)’, etc. May 9, 2023 at 11:36

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