Confusion about Thai to English transliteration

I’ve been working on adding water features to OSM since discovering that many bridges in Chiang Mai province display the waterway’s name on highway bridges. The Thai names for these streams and rivers are often prefixed with either แม่ (mae), น้ำ (nam), ลำ (lam) or ห้วย (huai). Some names use two or more, some even use all four. In some cases the signs indicate one way of arranging these common prefixes, while another sign shows another. Which brings me to the reason for asking about this in the first place.

I’m trying to determine the correct English translation for the name of the river that flows through Lamphun. One road sign I photographed clearly shows this: แม่น้ำกวง, which my Thai Romanization program (Thai Romanization v1.5.2) shows as Maenam Kwong. Another portion of the river was tagged with this name: น้ำแม่กวง, which the Thai-Romanization program transliterates to Nam Mae Kwong. The original mapper translated it differently and got Nam Mae Kuang.

My question has several parts. Are Nam Mae and Mae Nam equivalent or is one more correct than the other? Why in some cases does the Thai Romanization program combine syllables, as in Maenam Huai Bong? And finally, which is the correct version of the name of the river that flows through Lamphun so I can at least tag all parts of it consistently?

But I’m hoping for a general comment from a native Thai speaker concerning such names. I’m sure it would help us all better understand how they are constructed.

Dave does “Maenam Kuang”.

As I have more trouble reading a word than listening to it a good way is the text-to-speech engine of google. Pronounciation is quite good according to Jo.

Listen to it. As the order is clearly Mae Nam this is the transliteration.
It might be worth noting that name:en=Kuang River also sounds quite good.
Transliteration or translation depends a bit on how common the name is.

Best would certainly be a transliteration engine which would do the job on the fly when rendering or exporting. Unfortunately such a thing is not existing for Thai (as open source or freeware).

Jo says:
the river is Mae Kuang
Maenam is a noun and means river. Would use as a single word without spaces.

The formal name would be Maenam Mae Kuang. In practical use this is often shortened

Nam Mae Kuang would be used if you carry a bucket and people ask what that water is.

@Stephan: Despite your earlier recommendation, I usually avoid Google Translate because of the horrible job it does when translating Thai into English. Some of the results are laughable and barely resemble what was being said. But the spoken Thai sounds very good.

But to carry on the conversation a little further: The practice of using English words instead of the Thai transliteration is a common practice on OSM, Examples abound: Instead of Thanon Chotana for name:en we write Chotana Road. Many river names are likewise entered as, for example, Wang River rather than the more proper Mae Wang. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were consistent but it’s not. When one is searching for a particular place or feature having multiple ways to spell it makes things difficult.

I think we should avoid using Anglo-centric terms and stick to the proper Thai transliterations. Even then it’s not so clear cut. The use of Nam Mae and Mae Nam or Maenam is a perfect example because they’re all (approximately) correct. What’s a poor mapper to do?

Sorry for not being clear. Do NOT use Google translate for translation of Thai names. It might give a hint what something is, but can also be horribly wrong. I consider it quite useful to use the text-to-speech engine which comes with it. That is clicking on the speaker icon.

Nam Mae is wrong. At least according to my native speaking girlfriend. As Maenam is a single noun I would not split it into syllables. Similar “Namsom”, not “Nam Som”.
This understanding complies which what is summarized about RTGS in the wikipedia:

name:en should be the English name when there exists an established one. A good example is Bangkok instead of Krungthep.

Transliteration should be avoided, but sometimes it is worth adding it. Again Krungthep is an example for this.

We should avoid large-scale insertion of automatically generated transliteration. This can be done for example at the rendering step. I discussed this with Sven Geggus at one of the Hack weekends at Geofabrik. In case something had to be special handled there was the suggestion to use name:th-Latn

There are already some uses of it.

It happens that often the transliteration is more common than the translation. Most people talk about going to “Wat Pho”, not to “Pho temple”. So use common sense to enter the name:en.

It’s not, although Thais themselves barely use the term any more. น้ำแม่ (nam mae) is a regional variant of the usual maenam river name prefix. Some rivers in Northern Thailand are traditionally prefixed with nam mae, e.g. น้ำแม่กก (Nam Mae Kok), น้ำแม่กวง (Nam Mae Kuang), น้ำแม่ริม (Nam Mae Rim). If I understand correctly, they usually refer to smaller rivers than, or tributaries of maenam. The Royal Institute documents the use of such prefixes in its Gazetteer. (Try searching for “น้ำแม่” to see the rivers which are prefixed as such.) However, this usage doesn’t appear to be common any more, and most references to Northern rivers simply use the usual term maenam.

So according to the Royal Institute, the officially correct (though probably not-so-common nowadays) name is Nam Mae Kuang. Referring to the river as Maenam Mae Kuang would be redundant and technically incorrect. Maenam Kuang is technically better but might sound awkward, since the river’s known as “Mae Kuang” when shortened.

“Kwong” is clearly a software error, stemming from the failure to recognise that the ว here is acting as a vowel rather than a consonant.

PS It’s also quite common for rivers to change prefixes (or even names) along their length. According to the Gazetteer, the Wang River is known as Nam Mae Wang (น้ำแม่วัง) near its origin, and becomes Maenam Wang (แม่น้ำวัง) later in its course.

As for translation vs transliteration (actually transcription, to be accurate), I personally try to use translations (X Road, X Province, etc.) for the name:en tag, and place romanised Thai names in the name:th-Latn tag. (I make exceptions for Soi X, since there isn’t a good translation for the term, and it’s pretty much adopted by most English sources anyway.)

But waterway names are a tricky group. Take khlong, for instance. While some, like Khlong Saen Saep and Khlong Rangsit, sound okay as Saen Saep Canal and Rangsit Canal, others, like Khlong Toei and Khlong Luang, don’t lend their names well to translation. This is probably because the prefixes have somewhat become part of their names. The same applies for rivers/maenam.

As for the Mae Kuang, I’d use the following tags for the Thai and romanised names.

name              =น้ำแม่กวง
short_name        =แม่กวง
alt_name          =กวง;แม่น้ำกวง
name:th-Latn      =Nam Mae Kuang
short_name:th-Latn=Mae Kuang
alt_name:th-Latn  =Kuang;Maenam Kuang;Mae Nam Kuang

I’m not sure about the English name tags though. If transcription is preferred it should follow the th-Latn name tags above. Otherwise, I’d probably translate it as the following, since leaving out the Mae part sounds weird to me.

name:en      =Mae Kuang River
short_name:en=Mae Kuang
alt_name:en  =Kuang;Kuang River

Excellent answers. Thanks to both of you.


I understood what you were saying. I was referring to my having never used the speaking part of GT before. I had missed it because of my knowledge of the poor accuracy of GT as a text translator. I will certainly use the text-to-speech engine in the future.

@Paul: I was hoping you would find time to reply to this post. You have clarified the issue and made it more complicated at the same time. My girlfriend is a native Thai speaker but our communications about such things are fairly basic and cannot handle explanations of why the Thai language operates the way it does. I will take your advice into consideration when naming things in the future but can’t promise to do it every time. I think for a river as important as the Mae Kuang we should try to be as thorough as possible in our choice of names and you have given me enough info to do that.