What’s in a Name, Part 1: Turtle Troubles

As someone with a passion for zoology and translation, translating animal names is something I often think about. I never saw translating animal names as a big challenge, since most animals have a proper name in the languages you work with (Dutch, Japanese and English, in my case), and even if that’s not the case, one can always refer to the scientific name and a literal translation of the English name. Crested Gecko in English can easily be translated to Wimpergekko in Dutch and オウカンミカドヤモリ Oukan Mikado Yamori in Japanese, or if you want to make sure your target audience understands which species you’re talking about, the scientific name Correlophus Ciliatus clears all doubt. But what do you do if your source text uses a name that’s too general, or too specific? I will give two examples of animal name translation that stuck with me, and show my thought process as I work through translating these parts. I will discuss one text fragment today, and another in a week (maybe sooner, I don’t have a set writing schedule yet). If you disagree with my translations or arguments, feel free to leave a comment, I’m always open to civil discussion!

Text analysis and translation (Dutch to English)

Text fragment:

Schildpadden zijn dieren die op het land, maar ook in het water leven. We kunnen schildpadden onderverdelen in groepen: landschildpadden, moerasschildpadden, en zeeschildpadden.

Translation brief: This is from a presentation for British primary school students

The key point in this translation to me is that it’s for British primary school students. This means that we need to translate into British English, which is where the problems begin. The Dutch word schildpad is a general term, encompassing tortoises, terrapins, and sea turtles. In American English, the word turtle is similar to the Dutch schildpad, meaning it can be used to describe any of the species in the order Chelonia. In British English, however, the word turtle describes only the marine and freshwater turtles. The all-encompassing term for tortoises and turtles in British English is Chelonian. So, translating the first sentence as “Turtles are animals that can live on land and in the water.” would not work. The sentence would be factually correct because turtles can, in fact, move on land and survive there for a while, but it would not work because this sentence implies that this sentence is only about aquatic turtles, and not about tortoises. Trying this on the second sentence would result in “Turtles can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” This looks weird in British English because a turtle can only be aquatic, so setting tortoises as a group of turtles is impossible. This means that we can’t use the word turtles as the translation here, so that leaves chelonian as an option.
This raises another issue. Is the word chelonian common enough to be used for primary school students? The answer is obviously no, many adults won’t have heard of the word chelonian, so I doubt many primary school students know the word. Translating the first sentence as “Chelonians are animals that can live on land and in the water.” doesn’t work if the students don’t know what a chelonian is in the first place. For the second sentence, however, using chelonian might work: “Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” This is a good sentence, all it needs is an introduction of the word chelonian and it could work. But how do we introduce the word chelonian in the text without over-complicating it?

One option is to incorporate it in the previous sentence. The text would then be something like this: “Turtles are part of a group of animals called Chelonians, which can live on land and in water. Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” These sentences are short and use simple grammar, which makes them easily understood by primary school students of all ages while avoiding any factual inaccuracies related to chelonians.
Another option is to start the text with an introduction on chelonians. This would move the second sentence of this text fragment to the beginning, starting the text with “Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins all belong to a group of animals called Chelonians.” This provides a clear explanation from the start, making it easier to use the term chelonians in other parts of the text where necessary.

Now that we’ve solved the Chelonian conundrum, there are a few more things to do before we can finish this translation as a first draft. First, we need to figure out how to continue from here. Do we replace every general mention of turtle with chelonian? This would be the most accurate option, but we have to keep our target audience, primary school students, in mind. Do children really want to constantly hear the word chelonian in a presentation? I can imagine that they’ll get bored with the word, or forget what exactly a chelonian is.
However, using turtle instead of chelonian goes against the narrative we’ve established. In British English, all turtles are chelonians, but not all chelonians are turtles, so blindly using turtle means we are directly contradicting ourselves on top of using incorrect language. Would primary school students mind if we used turtle for the rest of the text? Probably not, but using it as a general term after establishing the term chelonian will most likely only add to the confusion.
The solution I’ve gone for is to add a small ‘disclaimer’ in the text, saying that, while chelonian is the technically correct term, we will use turtle when we refer to them, and use the specific terms of tortoise, terrapin (or freshwater turtle), and sea turtle. This clears up the confusion over the term turtle, explains what a chelonian is for the students who might be interested, and allows us to put specific names for certain facts that only apply to one of the three groups of chelonians. This leaves us with a first draft that looks like this:

Turtles are part of a group of animals called Chelonians, which can live on land and in the water. Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins (or freshwater turtles), and sea turtles. From now on, when we say turtle, we actually mean chelonian, but turtle is a lot easier to say.

Keep in mind that this is only a first draft, and will most likely go through many revisions before the finished product, but at least we have a base to work off of, and we can send this draft to the client for approval and further comments.

That does it for the first part on animal name translation! Feel free to leave a comment with your insights if you agree or disagree with me, and I’ll try my best to reply to you. The next part will involve some well-known Australian animals, including the infamous box jellyfish (Chironex Fleckeri).

Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_turtle_John_Pennekamp.jpg

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name, Part 1: Turtle Troubles

    1. You’re welcome, your blog seems interesting and a perfect match for my interests!

      Thank you for the follow too! That’s exactly why I’m writing about it, to give others an impression about what translation is like, and to hopefully make it more accessible to others!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m looking forward to reading them! I only started mine a bit over a week ago, so I’m just as new as you.

        I am! I’m starting a master’s degree in translation after the summer. I’m not sure what kind of translations I actually want to do, but for now, I want to learn as much about it as I can, and this blog is another incentive for me to do some more of my own research.

        Liked by 1 person

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