Of Names and Localization

When I’m not thinking in or of computer languages, one of the things that I find consistently interesting is natural languages. As such, I’ll occasionally spend some time simply puzzling over bits of language (for which purpose Language Log is an excellent feed of topics).

As it happened, I spent some time today informing myself more on the fairly well-known conlangs Esperanto and Lojban. I find each of them interesting, although my usual pragmatic approach to things probably means I’ll never do any serious study or either.

The point of this rambling, however, is that an exercise in Lojban For Beginners challenges the reader to spell their name using the lojban orthography. Jumping off from there, I endeavoured to see how my name might be translated to other languages.

Beginning with Lojban, I believe my name might be written as pitir.mar’aini (using the Latin orthography). For the uninitiated, the ‘.’ is a full stop, since Lojban doesn’t routinely capitalize (it mainly serves to denote unusual emphasis in pronounciation) nor is spacing a strictly enforced part of notation. Beyond that, the apostrophe is actually pronounced as an ‘h’ would be in English, and is considered a letter rather than a piece of punctuation. Everything else is fairly straightforward, just using rather different spelling conventions than might be seen in English.

Overall, I find that the Lojban orthography is pretty easy to get a hold of as a native English speaker. But what about some other languages? I have a bit of experience with Japanese, so I gave that one a try.

Coming up with a proper equivalent of my name with Japanese orthography is a bit of a kludge, since Japanese names are traditionally written with kanji, and so may also be considered to encode literal meanings[citation needed]. Choosing appropriate kanji for a translation of my name is far outside my expertise and it would sound completely different (and thus diverges from the point of this exercise), so I’ll settle with a katakana approximation: ピーター・マルハイニ. I use katakana here because it is traditionally used for words of foreign origin, which indeed my name is.

It’s an interesting challenge to transliterate from a European language (English here) into Japanese, since the Japanese syllabary is almost exclusively open (that is, the sounds end with vowels). In this case, I had to fudge my given name (Peter), since Japanese completely lacks the sound that ‘r’ provides in English- it becomes ‘PeTa’ instead, which I find to be acceptably close (the ーs denote long vowels).

In ‘Marheine’, the ‘rh’ construct is difficult, since it’s a consonant cluster which doesn’t fit into the aforementioned open syllables. For that, I fudged it with ‘ru’, which is (as far as I can deduce) a fairly common trick.

While I’m considering Japanese pronounciation, it’s worth mentioning the characters in the header on this web site (タリ). That’s a representation of my usual alias, Tari, in katakana.

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