What’s in a Name, Part 2: Down Under

Welcome back to What’s in a Name, where we look at how to translate animal names! Last time, we discussed what to do with turtles and tortoises, but this time we’re looking at the more dangerous side of wildlife; we’re talking about deadly animals in Australia. This fragment is from an assignment my best friend and her classmates had to do for class, and she went to me for help with translating the animal names. The sentence I’ve chosen to analyze here contains multiple animal names that can cause problems in the translation process. We’ll look at what to do if an animal doesn’t have a name in your target language, so-called ‘false friends’ in animal name translation, and another discussion on when to use generic animal names over species names. The sentence itself lends itself to translation well, so I will only discuss the animal name translation for the five species mentioned. This fragment will require a lot of analysis, so I will split this article up into two parts because I don’t want to write a huge wall of text.

Text analysis and translation (English to Dutch)

Text fragment:

Five of its creatures—the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world.1

Bryson, B. (2000). Down under. London: Doubleday.

Translation brief: You’re translating a travelogue on Australia to Dutch for a general audience.

Five animal species are mentioned in this fragment, but not all are mentioned in the same way. The blue-ringed octopus and paralysis tick are specific species, the box jellyfish and stonefish are generic names encompassing a whole class and genus respectively. The funnel-web spider is a generic name that is used here as a reference to a specific species, the Australian funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus). I will discuss each of these species separately and show the way I would translate the animal name, but I won’t show the translated sentence, as it’s a simple sentence with the only difficulties being the animal names.

Funnel web spider

The first species mentioned is the funnel-web spider, which, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, refers to the Australian funnel-web spider. This is a good example of a so-called ‘false friend’ that I fell for the first time I saw this fragment (and I’m not the only one making this mistake). In translation, a false friend is a word that looks a lot like a word in a different language but means something else. An example would be the German Handy, meaning cell phone, compared to the English handy. The Dutch word for spider is spin, and the Dutch word for funnel is trechter. Knowing that we have the name trechterspin in Dutch, I decided I’d translate it like that and call it a day. But, when I did some further research, I found out that I had mentioned a completely different family of spiders. The Australian funnel-web spider refers to a group of spiders belonging to the family Hexathelidae, with Atrax robustus and Hadronyche modesta being the most well-known, while the Dutch word trechterspin refers to the family Agalenidae, which consists not of funnel-web spiders, but funnel weaver spiders.
Now, you might not see this as an issue, but if you translate it as trechterspin and a reader of the translation then decides to look up some information would find out that these spiders can be found all over the world, including in the Netherlands. So imagine you don’t know much about animals, see the name of a deadly animal in a book, look it up, and find out it lives in your country. Many people would (rightfully so) not enjoy that thought. Or what if someone who happens to know a lot about animals would read this fragment? The moment they look up the animal you mentioned, they would find out you picked the wrong name.
So if trechterspin isn’t an option, what should we do? The answer is simple: research until you find an option. Go on Google, Wikipedia, get an encyclopedia, anything works if it gets you the answer. After some research, I found the name Australische tunnelwebspin, which literally translates to Australian tunnel-web spider, named after the distinctive shape of its web. Another translation offered was the one I dismissed earlier, Australische trechterspin, which surprised me. I am still of the opinion that this translation can cause confusion in readers, and as someone with a love for biology, I try to avoid using incorrect nomenclature wherever possible.
The translation I would use in this case is Australische tunnelwebspin, as this one can only refer to a single species, while the word trechterspin can cause confusion and technically refers to the wrong family of organisms.

Box jellyfish

The second species mentioned in the fragment is the box jellyfish. The name box jellyfish refers to the class of organisms known as Cubozoa. Some of the notorious species of box jellyfish are the sea wasp (Chironex fleckeri) and several species known as the irukandji jellyfish. Interestingly enough, even though these are all known as box jellyfish, the one most referred to by the name box jellyfish is the sea wasp (C. fleckeri)2. This leaves us with two options in the translation: Do we keep the general term box jellyfish just to be on the safe side; or do we use the name sea wasp as a base for our translation?
Using the general term box jellyfish as a base for our Dutch translation gives us the term kubuskwal, which is the general Dutch term for the family of Cubozoa. This term has the advantage of encompassing all species of box jellyfish, including the aforementioned irukandji. It works as a catch-all term, but the fragment itself doesn’t lend itself to that translation. “Five of its creatures” means you can’t just use a general term like that, as it describes five specific creatures, not groups of creatures.
The other option for translation is using the species name sea wasp as a base, resulting in the Dutch translation zeewesp. This is a specific translation referring only to the species C. fleckeri, which is the best-known species of box jellyfish in Australia, and the most venomous jellyfish in the world. Using this translation allows the reader to do their research on this animal, and fits better in the sentence, which is about specific creatures.
Looking at Dutch media, both terms are used interchangeably. Some media prefer the term kubuskwal, while others prefer zeewesp. In other situations, looking at the most common term used by media in the target language can offer some good insights, but that is not the case here. Since the media use both terms, in the end, the decision lies with us, the translator. Do we go for the general term or the specific one? We can always ask the client what they think, and this should often be done in situations like this because your translation needs to match the client’s expectations. Since this was an assignment for a class, we don’t have the luxury of asking the client, so I would personally use the translation zeewesp, because it is a more specific translation that is more fitting for Australia on its own, whereas kubuskwal can apply to the entire class of Cubozoa, which are found around the world.

That’s all for the first half of this article! Next time I’ll discuss the remaining three species mentioned in this fragment: the blue-ringed octopus, the paralysis tick, and the stonefish!


1 Bryson, B. (2000). Down under. London: Doubleday.
2 https://www.barrierreefaustralia.com/info/reef-dangers/box-jellyfish/
Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victorian_funnelweb02.jpg

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name, Part 2: Down Under

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