Species names

A goldfinch isn’t a goudvink. A coal tit isn’t a koolmees. Your pond is unlikely to be visited by a ring snake or a salamander. The words “sparrow” and “spreeuw” may look similar and may even be etymologically related, but they’re completely different birds.

Unless you’re sure, it’s best to check translations of the common names of plants, birds and animals, because there are plenty of pitfalls there. And there’s generally a pretty surefire way of doing it:

  • look up the Latin name for the species via the Dutch: the first hit is usually a Wikipedia link that tells you straight off
  • look up the English name for the species via the Latin
  • you’ll find that you should be talking about bullfinches, great tits, grass snakes and newts

Not by any means a common issue, but it’s an area where literal translations and guesswork can genuinely create mangled meanings.

Prevalence: low. I only come across such issues a couple of times a year at most. But when they do occur, they’re potentially high-impact mistakes.
Frequency: low. There’d rarely be more than one such error in a text, though the same one is naturally going to be repeated every time that species comes up.
Native: occasionally. Afraid so; I’ll confess to having slipped up with coal tit and koolmees myself. Once.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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