Translating the World: Uncharted waters

André Racicot
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 4, 2013, page 32)

Navigating the murky waters of place names is no easy task. English and French do not always use the same generic terms to designate waterways—and sometimes not even the same specific terms. That doesn’t make translating any easier!

Arbitrary decisions

The Persian Gulf is the waterway through which most Middle East oil passes. Some people, however, would challenge that statement by alleging that the oil passes through the Arabian Gulf. Since they are one and the same gulf, a mediator might try to reconcile both points of view by referring to it as the Persian-Arabian Gulf.

This example is a good illustration of the arbitrary nature of place names. The place name varies depending on whether its specific component is derived from Iran, hence the adjective "Persian," or the Arabian Peninsula.

However, the issue does not come up often, and thankfully so, as there are many gulfs, seas and straits that border more than one state, so if they had to take their names from those states, it would be hard to please everyone.

Sometimes both the generic and specific components of names for the same gulf or strait vary from one language to another. For example, the Bay of Biscay becomes the golfe de Gascogne in French. The former refers to a region in Spain, and the latter, to one in France. Another example is the Strait of Dover, which is not called the détroit de Douvres in French, but rather the pas de Calais!

And the waters get murkier still. A gulf in the language of Molière could very well be a bay in the language of Shakespeare. In French, the word baie designates an indentation in the coastline, whereas a golfe is much larger. So the term baie d’Hudson refers, erroneously in my opinion, to an immense golfe in Canada’s North.

From murky waters to dire straits. A strait or a détroit, in French, is a narrow waterway connecting two larger bodies of water. This, by the way, is how the city of Detroit, which was founded by the French, got its name. Although the accent has been dropped from the spelling in French publications, I proudly write its name as it should have remained: Détroit.

As we saw above, the word détroit can be translated as "strait." However, the word "channel" is also used. For example, the détroit de Corfou is the Corfu Channel in English, which makes francophones think of a chenal. What is a chenal, you may ask. It’s a narrow waterway, either natural or artificial, that can be used for navigation. The chances of mistranslation are further increased by the existence of a third term, "canal" (the same in English and French), which is an artificial waterway. The Panama Canal and, closer to home, the Rideau Canal in Ottawa are two examples.


There is disagreement over the number of continents. No one, however, disagrees that there are five oceans. The specific terms used for four of them (e.g. Pacific and Atlantic) do not seem contentious. The Indian Ocean is the exception. Its name derives from that of one country, India. Could this be challenged?

The Antarctic Ocean is also known as the Austral Ocean and the South Polar Ocean, for obvious reasons. Curiously, the Arctic Ocean is not also called the Borealis Ocean or the North Polar Ocean, though it is sometimes referred to as the Arctic Sea.

Seas and rivers

There are many more seas than oceans on earth. Oxford Dictionaries online defines sea as follows: "the expanse of salt water that covers most of the earth’s surface and surrounds its land masses." We therefore tend to think of seas as open water, but this is not always the case. The fully enclosed Caspian Sea is the largest lake in the world. It is bounded by Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. The Dead Sea, which is also enclosed, is described by many as a lake in Palestine.

In Canada, nearly every river called a fleuve in French is masculine, whereas every river called a rivière in French is feminine except for the Saint-François, the Saint-Maurice and the Saguenay rivers. By the way, do you know the difference between a fleuve and a rivière? It’s just that the former flows into the sea. It would therefore be incorrect to think that the size of a waterway determines whether it’s a fleuve. French-Canadians who visit Paris are always surprised to learn that the narrow Seine is a fleuve. And yet it is, because it flows into the English Channel.

Unfortunately, this masculine-feminine rule is not applied elsewhere in La Francophonie. Of course, some fleuves are indeed masculine in French, such as the Danube and the Nile, but the largest South American fleuve, the Amazon, is feminine in French. As for rivières, the Moskva in Russia is indeed feminine in French, but the Shannon in Ireland is not.

As usual, it’s not easy making sense of the wonderful world of place names!

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