By what name would you call the country that contains the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama? Does Nippon (にっぽん) ring a bell? What about Nihon (にほん)?
If you’re used to referring to that country as “Japan,” it might surprise you to learn that Japanese people use an entirely different name for their country than westerners do.
Now how about Kongeriket Norge? Translated to English, that phrase means “The Kingdom of Norway,” which is how locals refer to their country. Westerners, on the other hand, would simply call that country “Norway.”
What’s going on here?
The answer lies in the difference between an endonym and an exonym.
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What is an endonym?
An endonym is the term by which residents of a place refer to that place in their local language. In the above examples, Nippon (にっぽん) or Nihon (にほん) and Kongeriket Norge would be endonyms, because those are the names that Japanese and Norweigian people would respectively call their countries in their own native languages.
What is an exonym?
An exonym, on the other hand, is the name that non-locals would call a place. Japan and Norway would be the English exonyms for those countries that Westerners would recognize.
There may be many different exonyms for one place, considering that each language around the world may have its own translation of a given location name. “Japan” in Russian, for example, would be “Япония.”
If you’re curious about what the term for a language in its own language would be, it’s known as an autoglottonym.
“English” is of course the name for the language that English speakers would use for their own language. But while English speakers would call the language of France “French,” residents of France would actually call their language “Français.” Similarly, the language that English speakers would call “German” is referred to as “Deutsch” in Germany.
Following along with our earlier examples, Japanese people would call their language “日本語 (Nihongo)” and Norwegians would refer to theirs as “Norsk.”
For a fun list of autoglottonyms, check out omniglot.com’s extensive collection.
Why is it important for content creators to understand the difference between an endonym and an exonym?
It might seem irrelevant for content creators to keep in mind the difference between endonyms and exonyms. After all, if a story or a game was written in English with English speaking audiences in mind, it’s a reasonable assumption that all of the location names would already make sense to the target audience.
However, what if an author were to write a novel in English, for English speaking readers, about an event that takes place in Japan? Though the readers might be most familiar with the exonym “Japan,” it might actually make more sense for the characters in the novel to use the endonym for their country instead.
Technically, either the endonym or the exonym could be used in this context. That’s a decision often left up to the content creator during the translation process. For more on this, see the following sections.
Additionally, content accuracy isn’t the only reason to keep this distinction in mind.
If you’re a content creator who plans on distributing your work internationally (whether you want to publish globally or just in one or two other countries), you will need to go through the process of content localization.
What is content localization?
Content localization is the process of converting a piece of content into a different version suitable for publication in another country for a different target audience.
During the localization process, your content will likely undergo several modifications:
- Translation from the original language into the new language
- Redesign of the format to fit the new language structure (including a right to left flip, if necessary)
- Replacement of colors, images, and other symbolism that may mean something different in one country as opposed to another
- Thorough testing by native residents of the target region to make sure the experience is cohesive, intuitive, and seamless
Though the process might seem complex and cumbersome, it is an integral part of content publication because it ensures that readers around the world can enjoy your work just as much as your original target audience did.
What do endonyms and exonyms have to do with content localization?
After you plug a document into Google translate or ship it off to a human’s inbox, that translator is responsible for determining not only what the translation for every word and phrase should be, but which words and phrases should be translated in the first place.
Take proper nouns as an example.
If a translator comes across the name “John Smith” in a novel, he is unlikely to attempt to translate that name into the target language. Instead, he would simply put the English name “John Smith” into the text and expect the reader to understand that this character has an English (or American) name.
Often, this is done because names of people have no direct translations in other languages. Even if they do have a direct translation in the target language, the translator shouldn’t alter a person’s name just to fit the translation.
Let’s look at an example novel written in English about an American man named Mark House living in Germany. The author wants to have it translated to German and localized for publication in Germany.
“I gave the note to Mark House” in English would become “Ich gab Mark House die Notiz” in the German translation, even though the German word for “house” is “Haus.”
But what should the translator do in the case of a proper noun that could be changed to an endonym or an exonym?
If the character of Mark refers to his location in the novel, he might say “Germany” in the English version. Since he is an American living on German soil, he probably speaks English as a first language and would be most familiar with the exonym.
His German-born friend, however, would probably refer to the country by its endonym, “Deutschland.”
Should the translator switch both of these phrases to read “Deutschland” in the German version?
For accuracy, he probably shouldn’t. But for German audiences reading the book, it might offer a more seamless reading experience.
This is just one example where choosing a location’s endonym or exonym would rely heavily on context within the content and a translator’s gut interpretation of which should be used.
If you, as a content creator, feel strongly that an endonym or an exonym should appear consistently in your work, make sure to let your translator know before you start the localization process!
Knowing what you want ahead of time (and understanding which option makes the most sense) can save you time and frustration down the line!
What are some common endonyms and exonyms you may encounter during the content localization process?
Now that you understand the basics, you can have fun with figuring out the endonyms you might want to use in your content.
The Cultureur has a list of the 100 most frequently encountered endonyms and autoglottonyms that’s worth a skim if you plan on localizing your work for publication.
What is the next step?
For more tips on getting through the (occasionally confusing) translation process, check out these posts: