What effects does a country being renamed have on language translation and interpreting?

When we think of countries which have changed their names we usually think of Persia, or as it is now known, Iran, or East Pakistan, which we now know as Bangladesh (to name just a couple)

But last year the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sparked controversy over the name of one country in particular, Myanmar…or is it Burma?


Although the Military Junta changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a change recognised by the United Nations, neither the US nor the UK have recognised this change and have continued to refer to the country as ‘Burma’.

Lets quickly refer back to the history of all of this…Both names have been used in the country, but for different purposes. While ‘Myanmar’ is the written name of the country, ‘Burma’ is the spoken name. So why is a country which was once known worldwide as ‘Burma’ now referred to as ‘Myanmar’ by the majority of countries? In 1989 the unelected military regime changed the country’s name to ‘Myanmar’, however the US and UK do not believe the new regime to be legitimate and have therefore continued to use the previous name ‘Burma’.

So what effects does this have on Language Translation? If you are dealing with politics, it comes down to one thing: break your country’s policy, or upset another country by using the ‘wrong’ name.

This was the choice that Hilary Clinton was faced with….and she chose the latter! Some would argue that the name you choose to use indicates your political stance on the situation, which subsequently turns Language Translation into politics! The truth is, it’s not actually the name that’s the problem, it’s the political events behind the name change.

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Linguistically, the usage of the names is split and writers and linguists differ in what they choose to call countries. For some linguists, using the politically correct version is preferable, but for others who choose to appeal to a wider audience, the most well known name is used. The BBC for example prefer to use the name ‘Burma’ because that is the name that most of their audience is familiar with, but the United Nations argue that they will refer to a country by the name it wishes to be called.

So, to ensure our clients receive accurate translations, what on earth are we supposed to call these countries? The most diplomatic answer would be to use the previous name when talking about events up until the name change, and the most recent name from the name change onwards. If you were carrying out a translation project, which name would you use?