“Translating” proper names

As a passionate Russophile of over 22 years, I’m really glad to see more translators and writers starting to use the letter-for-letter transliteration I do, or at least a close enough substitute. It’s more and more common nowadays to see proper Russian spellings like Aleksandr, Nikolay, Andrey, Mariya, Yekaterina, and Natalya. Hopefully, we’ll soon see more proper spellings like Vasiliy, Yuriy, and Zubrovskiy, but even someone as nitpicky as I am can admit those spellings might look odd to non-Russophiles. I personally have long since gotten used to them, but I can at least understand how they can look strange at first.

Let me also stress that I don’t really have a problem with certain folks being much better-known by Anglo versions of their names outside of Russia. Even I won’t argue against referring to historical figures like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas II, or Empress Elizabeth, at least in English. Obviously, though, a Russian-speaking character should refer to them by their proper Russian names.

But it’s really frustrating to see fairly recent books written by people who still haven’t gotten the hint. I understand it was the common style as recently as 20–30 years ago to “translate” foreign names, but that’s no longer considered appropriate, outside of referring to certain crowned heads of state. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to see almost everyone’s name being “translated,” even when referring to regular folks who were only ever called by Russian names.

To think I got raked over the coals for having had rather un-Russian names in my first Russian historical before I started getting it ready for publication. I was rightly told it was ridiculous to have a character named Amy, even if her real name is Lyubov and she’s sometimes called Lyuba and other diminutives. I was also told I shouldn’t have characters with names like Margaret, Peter, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Leon, no matter how upper-class and Westernized they might be.

And yet certain non-fiction writers are allowed to get away with referring to real people with English names like Anthony, Nicholas, Elizabeth, Marie, Alexis, Michael, Helen, and Andrew? Seriously, “Nicholas Gogol”? Show me one modern, mainstream book where he’s referred to as Nicholas! That’s the height of cultural insensitivity, enforcing Anglo norms on foreign names. Wikipedia is also very bad about this.

Though I personally always refer to Russia’s capital as its native name, Moskva, I’m not going to argue against calling it “Moscow” in the Wikipedia article. Like it or not, that’s how most Westerners refer to it. But it’s beyond arrogant to keep insisting against changing the name of their article on Ukraine’s capital to Kyiv. “Kiev” is an Anglicized version of a Russified name, whereas Kyiv is its proper Ukrainian name, the transliteration the Ukrainian people have asked us to use. Its true transliteration is actually Kyyiv, but even I think that looks awkward. Guess what, no one will ever learn and adjust to the proper name if you keep insisting on using the wrong name! If they can change the names of other cities, like Mumbai and Kolkata, they can change from “Kiev” to Kyiv.

Anyway, Wikipedia insists on “translating” almost all royals’ names, and people in the Talk pages obnoxiously harp on about how “This is the ENGLISH Wikipedia.” These people weren’t English, and didn’t have English names. Beyond offensive and archaic how they think it’s appropriate to refer to them by names they never went by, like calling Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine as “Ernest Louis.” Yes, he went by Ernie among his family, but his name wasn’t Ernest Louis!

Another huge annoyance is how they call the murdered Prince Ioann Konstantinovich “Prince John.” Seriously, WTF? His parents called him Ioann. Not Ivan, not John, not Johan. IOANN. It’s so goofy and culturally insensitive to call him John when that wasn’t his name. When was he ever called John? Even the worst offenders among the name translators don’t call him John! By that logic, why don’t they call the six Tsars named Ivan “John” as well? Ioann is the older form of Ivan, the most quintessentially Russian name (even if it’s a bit old-fashioned anymore). Insisting on calling him John is beyond out of place and bizarre.

Obviously, we should respect someone’s chosen transliteration of his or her own name, even if I personally wouldn’t use a spelling like, e.g., Tatiana or Ekaterina. We should also respect someone’s choice to change one’s name when immigrating, like going from Aleksandr to Alexander or Natalya to Nathalie. But it’s not up to you to make that choice for another person, nor is it acceptable to decide all foreign royals “need” English names. There’s something seriously wrong when you can’t even use the spelling Elisabeth, which is hardly a foreign or unusual spelling in the English-speaking world.

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4 thoughts on ““Translating” proper names

  1. Do you complain when the German wikipedia uses the German forms of personal names/place names? What about the French wikipedia? Or when English places/names are not kept in their original form in the Russian or Ukrainian wikipedia?

    • I have a right to express my own opinion on my own blog, without it being challenged. That’s what a blog is for, to express our own opinions and not constantly be told we shouldn’t have those opinions. Many other people have these same issues with Wikipedia “translating” names, and the bigger issue of this post was writers who “translate” names of people who never used English names.

      Did you like anything about this post, or just decide to criticize my opinions yet again? I’m truly curious, because I don’t recall any comments where you’ve said anything positive about my opinions and findings.

      You obviously spectacularly missed the whole point of this post. There’s a right way and a wrong way to disagree with someone’s opinions, and point-blank telling someone s/he’s wrong, ridiculous, misguided, ignorant, etc., isn’t the right way. Do you really support people insisting “This is the ENGLISH Wikipedia” by refusing to acknowledge the name someone went by in real life? Do you really think it’s appropriate to refer to a very Russian prince as “John” instead of Ioann?

  2. Nicholas Gogol? Seriously? Someone wrote that? Wow, that’s crossing a crazy line, there. Changing the names of royalty is pretty common, but authors? I didn’t realize it went that far.

    Reminds me of trying to look up Ludwig II of Bavaria on the Encyclopedia Britanica DVD-ROM many years ago. The search didn’t seem to come up with an article on him, to my utter disbelief, so I looked up Neuschwanstein to cross-link…and it turned out I had missed the article because they had listed him as “Louis II”! Yeah, ’cause that makes so much sense, right? But that was at least ten years ago, maybe more; hopefully newer encyclopedias wouldn’t do that any longer.

    I’m very much into Greek myths, so I have a lot of personal, hmm, I guess you’d call them preferences, regarding how Greek names should be transliterated, so I know a bit how you feel on all this. (Though, on the whole, the Greek names aren’t as badly abused as the Russian ones. Some of the Greek characters/gods are another matter entirely…) My personal pet peeve is the wholesale substitution of Roman names for Greek ones, like Ulysses for Odysseus (rare these days), or Ajax for Aias (ubiquitous, even in scholarly work).

    (BTW, my grandmother’s name was Elisabeth. I think it’s a much prettier spelling than the “z” version.)

    • “Nicholas Gogol” appears in Greg King’s The Court of the Last Tsar. This particular historian tends to “translate” everyone’s name, even commoners who never went by English or French versions of their names. He even insists on using the name Marie instead of Maria/Mariya, as though Maria is such an odd, foreign, strange name to encounter.

      I used so many English names for Russian characters and historical figures, years ago, because I innocently copied what I saw. I’m glad to see it’s far less common nowadays to refer to anyone but royalty (and then not even everyone) by English forms of their names. I can understand a language without certain letters or sounds translating names (like Wiktoria or Viktorija instead of Victoria), but there’s really no excuse in the English language.

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