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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bell

The implications behind your choice of language – and why you should chose your words wisely.

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Andrew Bell is a medical and pharmaceutical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English, with a particular interest in the translation of medical journal articles.

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As translators, we constantly try to raise awareness of the importance of language. Usually, we focus on what can go wrong to get our point across (and sometimes provide funny examples to illustrate this). For example…

I’m sure this restaurant I visited on the southern coast of Mexico didn’t sell too many desserts to non-Spanish speakers.

Translation of the menu if you're curious

Today I don’t want to look at whether a translation is “right” or “wrong”, but the message being conveyed by your choice of words.

The vocabulary used to describe countries perfectly highlights this, and I want to share two examples with you related to the war in Ukraine.

Kiev vs Kyiv

How we pronounce the name of the Ukrainian capital can indirectly – or directly, depending on the speaker – indicate your political stance, and a lot of English speakers aren’t even aware of this.

The name of the Ukrainian capital in Russian is Киев (Kiev), but the name of the city in Ukrainian is Київ (Kyiv).

Not surprisingly, the Russian name uses sounds from the Russian language to pronounce the name of the city, whereas the Ukrainian name uses Ukrainian sounds. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many languages localise names to make it easier for their speakers – I couldn’t imagine a Spanish speaker wanting to say Edinburgh every time they spoke about the Scottish capital, so instead there is a Spanish equivalent: Edimburgo, which is much easier for Spanish speakers to pronounce.

However, given that both the Russian and Ukrainian pronunciations are accessible to English speakers, using the Russian name may inadvertently – or advertently – be implying a political view that Ukraine is not independent from Russia.

The Ukraine vs Ukraine

When I was in school, Ukraine was always referred to as “the Ukraine”, so obviously I presumed that was the name of the country. But actually, the use of “the” implies that Ukraine is a territory that is just one part of a larger whole (i.e., Russia), which is not the case for a sovereign nation.

Think of the regions and countries that make up the UK, we talk about the north, the south, the highlands etc., but we don’t talk about “the England” or “the Scotland”, because that would imply they’re regions, not countries.

There are however exceptions, and two countries insist on the use of the definite article in their names: the Gambia and the Bahamas. According to the BBC, the reason we say the Gambia is because they didn’t want to be confused with Zambia, which has a similar sounding name.

These are just two examples of why it’s important to choose your language carefully, especially now since there’s a lot of information being published in various languages regarding the war in Ukraine.

Always remember to double check your content before you post it, and if possible, have an independent language expert like a translator proofread your work to avoid making any inadvertent political references.

Get in touch with me if you have any questions or would like me to lend a hand with proofreading your English content.


Language matters: What learners need to know about Ukrainian

Why do we put 'The' in front of Gambia?

Ukraine or the Ukraine: Why do some country names have 'the'?

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