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If it moves, translate it!

One of the more persistent habits of many Hungarians is to be found in their carved-in-stone belief that everything that moves - and even what doesn't -  must be translated, even if the result only causes confusion, or worse.

A favorite non-movable object for translation is a street name. Some years ago, a business acquaintance announced in all seriousness that we should meet in Eagle Street!  Fortunately, my knowledge of Hungarian was already such that I easily knew what he wanted to communicate, but just imagine the plight of anyone without any linguistic knowledge when studying the street map or trying to explain his destination to a taxi driver. Even official websites, including Budapest Guide, suffer from the same syndrome.  One of the Guide's gems is Liberty Bridge – same street map and taxi problems.  Móricz Zsigmond körtér becomes Móricz Zsigmond Circus and is only traceable because personal names are involved.  Actually, when I think about it, since Liszt Ferenc can become Franz Liszt at the drop of a hat then, when push comes to shove, Móricz Zsigmond körtér could quite easily become Sigmund Morris Circus. So, yes, let's have Franz Liszt Square next time around and keep Sigmund Morris Circus in reserve.

Of course, when personal names present serious problems to translation freaks they have to resort to new ideas.  The same web guide to Budapest actually refers to Andrássy út as Andrássy Avenue!  Well, other considerations apart, that is certainly just as linguistically incorrect as the translation of Városliget into City Park.

Where does all this “translatomania” come from?  I suspect that a very possible origin is that  language tuition in Hungarian schools is based on the principles of formalistic translation, not of communication.  At the same time, there appears to be a need by many to demonstrate their knowledge of a language and to relate to non-Hungarians in it.  While their underlying motivation is probably one of wishing to be helpful, the result may not always achieve this goal.

What the translation fanatics seem not understand is that, to my knowledge, Hungary is the only country in the world where such excesses are practiced.  Could the rest of the world get into line with Hungary?  The challenge would involve my American friends agreeing to rename Central Park as Központi Park and Broadway as Széles utca.   Then, my Italian friends should be consulted on an acceptable translation of Via Veneto and my German friends about one for the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin.  Perhaps Whitehall could become Fehér csarnok and Regent Street might do well as Uralkodó utca.  But wait! I would not risk consulting with the Académie Française since the Immortels might order the return of the guillotine to Egyetértés tér – pardon, Place de la Concorde – and send me there. Perhaps it would be better to forget this dreamy project and return to the real world.

In reality, the answer lies in both educationalists and the editors of official publications being willing to accept that translation for translation's sake does not result in good communication.  They should recognize that, as elsewhere in the world, every person and every place has its own name in its home language.  That is the name which should be used, neither fully nor half translated - road, street, square, etc. - and certainly not wrongly.  If ever there should be any real need for an explanation, then that can be parenthetically added to it, but not substituted for the proper name.

(Alister Neil)