Frankly speaking, translating addresses in non-literary texts shouldn’t be an issue at all. Why so? Because addresses are best left untranslated and one can hardly imagine an easier task than leaving a portion of text unchanged. However, I still occasionally proofread legal translations (from Polish into English) worded as follows:
All notifications shall be sent to the following address: 34/12 Wyzwolenia Avenue, 02-003 Warsaw, Poland.
(The example isn’t authentic, in contrast to the phenomenon discussed.)
Such zeal pervades our industry, such fervour! Not a word left out in translation. Now let’s imagine that the client decides to respect the elegant provision and mails a letter to ‘Wyzwolenia Avenue’. Alas, such a street is nowhere to be found in Warsaw. Hopefully, the mailman would guess that the address in question is ‘Aleja Wyzwolenia’ (aleja being the Polish equivalent of ‘avenue’) but it’s hardly desirable to bet the fate of your (legal!) correspondence on the astuteness of a stranger. Unnecessary risk escalates in translations from English to Polish. Who would like to be in the shoes of a New York mailman tasked with delivering a letter to an obscure ‘Piąta Aleja’ instead of the more familiar ‘Fifth Avenue’?
One could argue that I’m reducing the matter to absurdity. Indeed, but not without reason. I’m blowing it out of proportion because it is symptomatic of a more serious problem: a lack of understanding that the text was written for a specific purpose. In more professional terms: translating addresses suggests that the translator is either unfamiliar with skopos theory or bluntly chooses to ignore it.
Skopos theory was established in the 1970s by Katharina Reiß and Hans Vermeer. As the name implies (skopós is a Greek word for ‘purpose’), the theory assumes that any text is a communication tool destined to serve a specific purpose. Therefore, translators should make every effort to best reflect that purpose. Skopos theory is widely used in non-literary translation. In our case, applying it would require the translator to understand why the address is included the text (for posting mail) and ensure that it can still serve its function in the translation (leave the address unchanged).
But are there contexts in which an address line should be translated? By all means – in literature. Though even then you shouldn’t let your guard down or you could end up with a Sherlock Holmes living at Bäckerstraße, rue Boulanger, Piekarska… all curiously located in London. I did come across a similar phenomenon in the translation of a Polish novel into English. ‘The Man With The White Eyes’ (Zły) by Leopold Tyrmand is set in the Warsaw from the 1950s but there is a bizarre, Anglo-Saxon feel to the city. While some of its street names seem to be rooted in the Polish language (‘Nalewki Street’), others are purely English: ‘Saint Cross Street’, ‘Three Crosses Square’ and, the cream of the crop, ‘the Jerusalem Way’. No, those are not real names. But you can try your hand at finding ‘the Jerusalem Way’ if you ever visit Warsaw.
I’ll give overzealous translators one thing – deciphering their charades is good entertainment. I’m just not entirely sure it’s the entertainment appreciated by all the confused mailmen.