Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What is the translation of the Chilean "Región" into English?

One of my pet peeve annoyances of living in Chile is related to the unique way in which the administrative areas are designated, and how such designations get mistranslated into meaninglessness (or confusion). For reference purposes, the largest sub-national administrative zone is called "Región." Now, many people might want to translate this into the English "Region," but this would be like translating the now-commonly understood usage of "state" into "nation" (which - after all - used to mean effectively the same thing).

Recently, I was reviewing a paper written about sampling that took place in the waters inside and outside the Strait of Magellan. Now, for context, the Strait of Magellan and the waters nearby are located in the Chilean sub-national administrative area called Región de Magallanes y de la Antartica de Chile (known more commonly as simply "Región de Magallanes"). The annoying thing came about when the the author made reference to both the Strait of Magellan and "the coastal zone of the western Magellan region."

Okay, if you didn't just read through the above descriptions of what is meant by "Región" in Chile, I would bet that "the coastal zone of the western Magellan region" - in the context of sampling that took included areas in and around the Strait of Magellan - would easily be confused to mean "the coastal zones west of the area around the Strait of Magellan" instead of the intended meaning of "the coastal zones in the western area of the administrative area known in Chile as 'Región de Magallanes' (which is far larger in geographic scope than just the area in and around the Strait of Magellan)."

It's always difficult to determine whether some proper name should be translated or not. The name "Puerto de San Antonio" is often translated into "Port of San Antonio," but it isn't translated into "Port of Saint Anthony," even though "Saint Anthony" is the translation of "San Antonio." Similarly, the Cerro San Cristóbal (located in Santiago) is translated into "San Cristobal Hill," but not into "Saint Christopher Hill," even though "Saint Christopher" is the translation of "San Cristóbal." Based on these example, though, it seems a reasonable assessment that place names that include man-made or natural physical features (like ports or hills) have the physical feature translated into English, but the rest of the name remains in the original language. In that way, "Río Claro" is translated into "River Claro" or "Claro River" (but not "Clear River") and "Bahía Inútil" is translated into "Inutil Bay" (but not "Useless Bay").

But I would argue that cases where designations are effectively false-cognates (like "Región" and "Comuna"), translating them into English should not be done - no matter what Wikipedia says. This is because the term "Region" holds absolutely no implicit governmental significance in English, and "Commune" (the most common translation of "comuna") has a long historical use in English that is completely foreign to the way it is understood in Chile. Therefore, all fifteen Chilean "Regiones" should be presented as "Region de ___" like "Region de Magallanes."

Similarly, all the 346 Chilean comunas should either be presented as "Comuna de ___" like "Comuna de Aisen" in places where different administrative levels share the same name (e.g., Region de Aisen, Provincia de Aisen, Comuna de Aisen) or simply the name places where the comuna name is distinct from any other administrative level (e.g., "Providencia"). Or just refer to that whole administrative level as "Municipality."

All of this is because leaving the name untranslated immediately signals to the reader that this is a name of a specific place, whereas translating the name to “Magellan region” or "the Lakes region" or "the Rivers region" could easily be misinterpreted to mean “the zone around the Strait of Magellan,” "the zone with lakes," and "the zone with rivers," respectively. 

Of course, there are no firm rules for using place names in English. However, it is often far more useful for English-language readers if place names do not have their meanings translated into English. 

Now, Chile also has Roman Numeral designations for all the administrative Regions (I through XV). And I have seen people try to use these designations in their article drafts. But I would merely point out that using the Roman Numeral designations will likely mean absolutely nothing to readers who have no experience with Chilean political geography. The designations also run afoul of the very distinct uses of Roman Numerals in much of the English speaking world compared to how they are used in the Spanish speaking world generally (and Chile specifically).

So, in conclusion, in the case of Región: 
  1. don't translate the term "Región" into "region."
    • In general usage, refer to "administrative Regions"
    • In specific usage, refer to "Region de ___."
  2. don't use the Roman Numeral designation for the administrative Regions. 
  3. don't use accents
And in the case of Comuna:
  1. don't translate the term "Comuna" into "commune
    • In general usage, refer to either "administrative Comunas" or "municipalities"
    • In specific usage, refer to either "Comuna de ___" or "Municipality of ___."