Tuesday 15 January 2013

Terminology for parts of a city

Texts about towns and cities can be tricky to translate. One thorny problem which arises again and again is how to translate the terms used for parts of the city. Municipalities are often broken down into smaller parts. Sometimes these smaller parts have an administrative function, sometimes they arise from social or historical traditions. The best way to research the terminology of the parts of towns or cities is to look at actual examples. However, the terms used in my two languages (German and English) turn out to be rather confusing and inconsistent.

Terms used in German

The basic term in German is “Bezirk”, “Stadtteil”, “Stadtbezirk”, “Ortsteil” etc.

I live in Berlin, and here the term “Bezirk” is used with a strictly defined meaning – it denotes an administrative urban district with its own elected parliament and its own administrative structure. There are 12 of these “Bezirke”. My “Bezirk” is called Spandau, which is on the western edge of Berlin and is itself broken down into 9 formally defined sub-districts, known as “Ortsteile”. The most well-known “Ortsteile” are probably Kladow, Gatow and Siemensstadt, closely followed by the area where I live, Staaken. But there are also a number of smaller areas with locally familiar names such as Klosterfelde, Altstadt, Neustadt, Wasserstadt, Waldsiedlung, Pichelsdorf. These are referred to by terms such as “Gebiet”, “Ortsteil” “Ortslage”, “Quartier”, “Kiez”.

What about other towns and cities in Germany? In Mainz there are 15 defined “Stadtteile”, which are referred to as “Ortsbezirke” in administrative texts. The officially defined structure in Stuttgart is rather more complicated, with 23 “Stadtbezirke”, 152 “Stadtteile” and 318 “Stadtviertel”. Munich has 25 official “Stadtbezirke”, but Wikipedia lists many informally used local names for smaller areas, which it refers to as “Stadtteile”, “Quartiere” and “Siedlungen”.

Other German-speaking countries have a similarly broad range of terms. For example, the larger urban districts in Zürich are the 12 “Stadtkreise” or “Kreise”, each of which is made up of 2-4 “Quartiere”. Basel (Basle) has 19 official residential districts called “Quartiere”. Geneva has 4 “Stadteile”, each of which is sub-divided into “Quartiere”. Vienna has 23 “Bezirke”, which the locals often refer to by number rather than by name, and which are made up of “Bezirksteile” and smaller areas known as “Grätzl”.

The list of terms for parts of cities in German is therefore long: Bezirk, Ortsteil, Gebiet, Ortslage, Quartier, Kiez, Stadtteil, Ortsbezirk, Stadtbezirk, Stadtviertel, Quartier, Siedlung, Stadtkreis, Kreis, Grätzl – and this list is certainly not exhaustive.

Terms used in English

In my home city of Coventry (UK), the parts of the city are mainly referred to as “suburbs” – even in central parts of the city and without distinction in terms of size. There are also some smaller units called “wards”. However, the suburbs do not appear to play any administrative role in the government of the city.

Just a few miles to the north-west, in Birmingham, the terminology is more varied, including terms such as “metropolitan borough”, “formal district”, “council constituency” “ward” and “suburb”. In London I found references for terms such as “borough”, “urban district”, “ward”, “suburb”, “neighbourhood”, “local area”, “inner London” and “outer London”.

Other English-speaking countries also present a stunning variety of terms. New York has five formally defined “boroughs” (sometimes spelled “boro”). They are broken up into “neighborhoods”. The term “suburb” is rather emotional, and many New York residents are adamant that suburbs are only found outside the five boroughs. San Francisco has “districts”, “quadrants”, “neighborhoods” and many informally named smaller areas.

The English terms listed here, then, are suburb, ward, borough, boro, metropolitan borough, district, urban district, formal district, neighbourhood, neighborhood, local area, inner, outer, quadrant – and again, this list is far from exhaustive. Further research in other towns and cities and other English-speaking countries is sure to turn up many more examples.

Help! What can I do in my text?

This variety of terms in both languages means first of all that there is no absolute right answer for any terminology question. Perhaps I could suggest a provisional sub-division into primary, secondary and informal parts of the town or city, although some of the terms will overlap, and many distinctions are likely to be relative.

Primary sub-divisions:

German: Bezirk, Stadtbezirk, Ortsbezirk, Stadtteil, Stadtkreis

English: borough, boro, urban district, formal district, inner/outer

Secondary sub-divisions:

German: Ortsteil, Gebiet, Ortslage, Quartier, Kiez

English: district, neighbourhood, neighborhood, local area, suburb

Informal areas:

German: Quartier, Kiez, Siedlung, Viertel, Grätzl

English: quadrant, ward, suburb, local area, residential district, residential estate, housing area

Scratching the surface

I realise that these terms do not cover all that can be said about urban locations. For example, how are the German “City” and “Innenstadt” linked, and how closely do they correlate with the “city centre”, “inner city” or “central business district”? How do we treat terms such as “Stadtrand” and “Randlagen”, and what exactly are “Mittelzentren”? The list of open questions could go on and on, and perhaps I will come back to some of these terms. But hey, I haven’t managed a blog post for about 9 months, and this first venture back into “active service” has to end somewhere, doesn’t it?.


  1. Hi Victor!
    As someone who often translates architecture books I found this information extremely helpful
    - thanks! The terms "ward" and "quadrant" were completely new to me, but are sure to come in handy.

  2. This was very interesting to read, thank you! It is something I have not thought much about until now. My own hometown is not very large; we have several Ortsteile which, in case someone asked me to explain in English, I guess I'd call suburbs as opposed to the city centre. Or would I say town centre...? Hmmm...!

  3. Thanks Jennifer and Librarian for the comments.
    @Jennifer: Oh the joys of the convoluted written style of German architecture writers!
    @Librarian: Yes, the old chestnut "town or city". I suppose there's another blog topic lurking there somewhere. Some day soon, I hope.

  4. Nice post. "Quadrant" has a decidedly science fiction nuance to my ears.
    Of course, context is king as always. I only recall hearing "ward" in the sense of an electoral district and used in that context, such as the local paper reporting on local politics.

  5. @Simon: thanks for the comment. Of course context is always the king (or queen, depending on the context ).
    I believe "quadrant" is used to designate districts in some cities with a rectangular street grid, e.g. San Francisco or Washington D.C. Not sure if that usage occurs in the UK - as far as I know the word "quadrant" in the UK is used to describe the shapes of buildings, squares etc., and is sometimes used as a street address derived from that use. In Germany the word comes up in G-hits in English about the city of Mannheim; in German Mannheim calls itself the "Quadratestadt", but I don't know how the term is actually used in local everyday speech.
    I, too, know the use of "ward" primarily for an electoral district, but Google also betrays a number of hits in which it is used as a local geographical description, e.g. in urban planning documents, so it is not always used in the context of the actual elections. I don't know whether the term "ward" as a geographical designation is used in other English-speaking countries.

  6. I read this with interest, because I have noticed that different governments have different structures that do not always translate. For example, the Japanese sense of the word translators have historically called a "prefecture" is not the same as what other countries call a "prefecture," and in America, there are no prefectures at all, which makes such a translation all the more confusing. (I know it's not the best reference, but see Wikipedia's "Prefecture" entry for more information on how various governments have different meanings for the word prefecture or cognates of the word: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefecture).

    I think about American friends I know who visited Paris. They said, "We stayed in the Fourth Arrondissement," and they Anglicized the pronunciation to Uh-RAHN-diss-ment. This makes more sense to me than trying to "translate" this French term that has no equivalent in English. Don't you think sometimes the best translation is a footnote to a native word that describes what the word means? I think sometimes it is better to explicate than translate the untranslatable.

  7. Hi Daniel, thanks for commenting and bringing a new term into the mix (prefecture, which seems to denote regions larger than a city).
    Interesting suggestion about leaving terms in the source language and adding a footnote. This depends on the term in question and the context - I usually try to avoid using foreign terms in the flow of the text, because I feel that when I translate I am not teaching the language, and I shouldn't expect my readers to remember the meaning of a foreign term that I explained three pages ago. Where the foreign term is necessary to clarify things, I usually add it in brackets - or sometimes the other way round (foreign term in the text, but a translation or explanation in brackets).
    But here, as always, the context and the intended readership vary, so the solutions adopted by translators will vary too.

  8. @World Comment: thanks for this fascinating addition to the mix. There is an interesting overview at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Township. In many countries it seems to refer to a village in a rural setting. In others it is a region defined for survey purposes irrespective of any settlements. In South Africa and Zimbabwe it is used for part of a town or city, which seems to be largely defined on social and racial criteria.
    I had not come across the word in the UK - I thought of it as a specifically South African term. So I am surprised by the many international usages of the term (including the UK) which are listed in the Wikipedia article.
    Which underlines that translation and terminology research are broad fields for life-long learning.

  9. Thank you for very interesting and useful post.