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Challenges Cartographers Face When Translating Maps



Maps have been part of humans since time immemorial with the earliest map known to be that of the heavens. Maps have been used to symbolically emphasize relationships between objects, places, regions or themes in space. In addition to relying on general information relating to a particular location, maps also consist of contour lines which indicate additional information including topography, elevation, temperature, rainfall, orientation, and various landforms.

The earliest cartographic map was the Medieval European T and O maps such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi map of Jerusalem which was originally written in Greek. Over the years, cartographers have translated the World’s map to almost every language with the aim of appealing to a wide audience and for various educational purposes. Today, the world atlas is published in local languages with more familiar local dialects in parentheses for easier identification of location. Nevertheless, translating maps into local languages is a process faced with major challenges attributed to the language barrier and bad translation. Below are the main challenges faced by cartographers when translating maps.

Longer Languages

Some languages are integrally longer than others; therefore, a term cannot be accurately translated since it will need to be reduced in size. Some meaning is lost or misunderstood when words are reduced thus resulting in bad translation. For instance, words in the German language are 10% longer than words in English, thus, making it difficult to maintain the integrity of the German-English translation. Additionally, when such words cannot be translated to even smaller words, a cartographer has to compress the font and spaces between the characters which usually amounts uneven printouts causing the map unattractive or disorderly.

Different Fonts

Some languages such as Chinese, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Japanese have extremely different fonts and text justification from other languages which provides a challenge when translation. For instance, the Arabic language fonts are justified from right to left, therefore, making words of Arabic location problematic to outline in a map. Texts of such languages are also pronounced with an accent (falling and rising intonations) with most words having the same meaning but with different pronunciations. Such texts pose a challenge during translation as they tend to be imprinted incorrectly usually resulting in mistranslations.

Accurate Translations

The problem of accurate translations is often a significant challenge faced by cartographers as the quality of translations sometimes may be compromising. Most cartographers have a deep understanding of maybe two or three languages and may not fully understand if the translation to a particular language is accurate. It’s therefore crucial for cartographers to hire professional translation service to ensure the quality of the translation is upheld. They should hire a native speaker with some geographical knowledge to assist them in the translation. Additionally, any translation to a particular language should be carefully proofread and checked before being published. Some words of places or roads may lose meaning when translated therefore it’s important to leave them in the native language

Problems of Bad Translation on Maps.

Since maps function to relate objects and space in a 2-dimensional view, bad translation may have enormous consequences that can easily be avoided. Below are of some consequences of poor translations on maps.

  • Wrong directions- Most modern maps provide direction to particular places on interest. Wrong translation would give a wrong direction, and one can certainly get lost in the midst of nowhere. This could be dangerous particularly if someone is new to a particular place with no understanding of the local situation. Think of this situation, the map indicates to turn left after 400 meters, and the statement is translated to turn right after 400 meters, one will undoubtedly get lost.
  • Wrong location of landforms- Landforms names including mountains, rivers, and lakes when wrongly translated leading to difficulty in navigation. When visiting a new place, it is apparent that you would want to explore surrounding parks, rivers, lakes, mountains and other physical features. Off course you will have to access the local translated map to plan the trip by finding the navigation to the place of interest. Wrong translation of the landforms or state of the roads whether passable or impassable will surely give you a difficult time when traveling. The dangers posed by the wrong translation of various landforms is enormous with fatal consequences.
The Bottom Line 

Translation is a major challenge faced by cartographers when creating maps. Maps should be accurately plotted such that the labels should fall in the same place irrespective of the length of the text. Compressing the text to accommodate the longest label while still ensuring that each text does not overprint another is usually difficult and often results in mistranslation and printing errors. The challenge of translating maps can be overcome by carefully proofreading translated texts by a native speaker or a professional translator and ensuring correct positioning of text labels. Names of local places or roads should also in most instances be left untranslated to avoid loss of meaning.

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