When you use an online maps of another country using a mapping service like Google Maps or Yahoo Maps, would you expect the place names on that map to be displayed in your own local language and/or script or to be in that of the country you're looking at the map of?
I was posting a video to one of our sites (naturally Drupal-based) at work today to test some functionality, and started wondering when I came to add a location to the post. The point of the test wasn't to check the mapping-based functionality in the site, but that is what caught my attention.
The video I was posting (one about giant hornets, and very cool, even if they do freak me out) was filmed on the Japanese island of Honshu, so naturally I wanted to geolocate it somewhere there in the general sort of area so others could see where it was filmed.
As I zoomed in to Japan I quickly noticed that all the place names were in Japanese with no English equivalent. That left me out of luck as somebody who knows the English name of the place but knows nothing of Japanese script. Looking to the west of Japan, Russia is in the same situation, having place names only in Russian. China, on the other hand, actually has place names in both English and Chinese (and they also have a localised version of Google Maps just in Chinese). Check out this map to see a couple of examples from that region of the world.
So my first question is, why are the maps showing multilingual names in some places but not others? Is it about data availability, perhaps the level of effort it would take to merge multiple datasets of place names for some countries?
Hopefully names will, in time, be shown in different languages for other countries too.
For these maps to be a truly useful international as well as local resource, place names should ideally be available in the local form as well as in other forms. Instead of picking one 'international' language such as English, they should probably be available in the local language of the country that the company has aimed a mapping portal at (Google has ones for the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and about ten others).
So, for example, the US and UK portals would show place names in English by default, with the local language of the country displaying alongside. For others, such as the French portal, the French versions of place names could be used with the local version, falling back perhaps to the accepted international (usually English?) name of the place where there was no translation available. In Russia, the Russian version would be used if there was one, along with the local version.
Traditionally, maps were published by governments or other mapmakers within a country and would typically have the place names conveyed in the language of the publishing country (maps made in France would have all the names in French, etc.) because that's who the maps were targeted at. In a more connected, distributed world, the publishing country becomes less relevant and the target countries much more so.
It may be a lot of work but at the end of the day I think international maps should be localised into the language of the user. If the problem is data availability then the likes of Geonames and the implicit database of linkages between articles of different languages in Wikipedia could play a great role here with their growing databases of place names. In OpenStreetMap as well, we have the ability to store place names in as many languages as they have names (e.g. name:en=Isle of Man, name:de=Insel Man, name:fr=L'Ile de Man), though I think currently we only render the default name value on the main maps (which is likely to be the local language of that country). In the future this could be improved upon, as long as the data is in the database.
Update: a website called diddlefinger.com has been adding its own labels on top of Google's maps of Japan for a year or so now. Interesting use of the API to make things more usable for an international audience.