geographical names: translation

There are several principles to bear in mind in the translation of geographical names. The information below provides helpful guidelines.

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Reinstatement of official English toponyms

Where the generic of an English-language place name has been translated into French, it is essential to restore it to its original English form when translating the French document into English. In the following sentence, the toponyms have been translated into French but their official forms are English:

  • Le relief du plateau est plus particulièrement remarquable dans le nord de l’île Somerset, sur la presqu’île Brodeur, ainsi que dans le centre et l’ouest de l’île Prince of Wales.

Since, in accordance with the rules, the specific parts of these toponyms (Somerset, Brodeur, Prince of Wales) have not been modified in any way, it becomes more a question of verifying the official English form in the appropriate gazetteer than a question of translation. The original names are Somerset Island, Brodeur Peninsula and Prince of Wales Island.

Translation of the generic

General rule

The generic of a geographical feature name may be translated:

  • lac Beauchamp / Beauchamp Lake
  • île Madame / Madame Island

French and English equivalents for generics have been established in the publication Glossary of Generic Terms in Canada’s Geographical Names.


The generic should not be translated in situations (a), (b), (c) and (d) below. The name is left in its official form and is followed, as needed, by a geographical term describing the nature of the entity, which will be indicated in the gazetteer of the province or territory concerned.

The generic does not indicate the actual nature of the entity designated:

  • île Cooks (rock) / Île Cooks rock
  • lac Cochémère (pond) / Lac Cochémère pond

The generic is rare or borrowed from a language other than English or French:

  • Hanbury Kopje hill
  • Loch Erne lake

The generic is separated from the specific by one or more linking particles:

  • lac aux Saumons / Lac aux Saumons
  • baie de la Sorcière / Baie de la Sorcière
  • anse de la Pointe / Anse de la Pointe

The name is preceded by the article “Le (La, Les, L’),” which is part of the toponym. The article is retained at the beginning of the toponym and the appropriate geographical term or a short description may be added for clarity:

  • Les Chutes / Les Chutes or the falls known as Les Chutes
  • La Grande Rivière / La Grande Rivière
  • Le Petit Étang / Le Petit Étang or the pond known as Le Petit Étang

Non-translation of the specific

With the exception of names of pan-Canadian significance and some alternate forms approved by provincial authorities, the specific is not translated. It must be left in its official form (that is, the form in which it appears in the gazetteer of the relevant province or territory), with all hyphens, articles, accents, diacritical marks and capital letters. Nothing is added and nothing omitted:

  • pointe Enragée / Enragée Point
  • rivière Saint-Augustin / Saint-Augustin River

Adjectives and points of the compass

Adjectives such as grand, petit, supérieur, inférieur, as well as points of the compass, are translated when they qualify the generic:

  • ruisseau Saint-Jean Nord / North Saint-Jean Creek
  • Petit lac Saint-Amour / Little Saint-Amour Lake
  • Petite rivière Grand / Little Grand River

They are not translated if they qualify the specific or replace it, or if they precede a generic not followed by a specific:

  • lac Grande Gueule / Grande Gueule Lake
  • rivière Ouest / Ouest River
  • Petit Ruisseau / Petit Creek

Alternate names and provincial translations

Although the official names of toponyms should always be given preference, provincial and territorial authorities allow, in certain circumstances, the use of geographical names that are not official.

For example, Manitoba has approved the following equivalent names for use:

  • Plum River (official) / Rivière aux Prunes (equivalent)
  • Rat River (official) / Rivière aux Rats (equivalent)
  • Rivière aux Marais (official) / Marais River (equivalent)

At the same time, some provinces have official translations for certain features and places.

New Brunswick, for instance, has the following official names in both English and French:

  • Caissie Cape (rural community) /Cap-des-Caissie
  • Second Falls (falls) / Deuxième Sault
  • Grand Falls (town) / Grand-Sault
  • St. Francis River / Rivière Saint-François
  • Green River / Rivière Verte

Ontario has also recommended official alternate French names for three rivers:

  • Detroit River / Rivière Détroit
  • French River / Rivière des Français
  • St. Clair River / Rivière Sainte-Claire

Names of pan-Canadian significance

The 81 names of pan-Canadian significance established by the Treasury Board of Canada (Circular 1983-58) have well-known forms in both English and French. For the purposes of federal government publications, both forms are considered official. You will find this list on the web page Geographical names of pan-Canadian significance.

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