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Foreign Name -- Translate or Transliterate (or Copy)?

Compare Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. There are many possible axes of comparison, but I want to focus on their names. To his mother (and other compatriots), Tolstoy was and is Lev, since that's the Russian equivalent of Leo; yet to English speakers, he is Leo. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, could be Teddy. Well, OK, he wouldn't be, but he could be Theodore, since that's the analog of Fyodor; yet he remains Fyodor.

Likewise, compare Czar Nicholas (Nikolai) and Joseph Stalin (Yosif) with Mikhail — not Michael — Gorbachev. (I don't know why some people render Stalin's name as Josef, since it doesn't approach the Russian pronunciation any better; note also that while Stalin was born in Georgia, the name was borrowed into English from Russian, not from Georgian.) What's up there?

I have some suspicions, for instance relating to how similar the name is to the English version (which explains Lev becoming Leo, but Fyodor staying Fyodor, but doesn't explain Mikhail staying Mikhail), and relating to the time of English adoption. But I wonder whether others have studied this more closely, not just as to Russian but also as to other foreign-alphabet languages.

Related question: What about the occasional Anglicization of names from Latin-alphabet languages? The one example I know off the top of my head is Popes; is that just simply related to the Church's willingness to speak to people in their own language (even during the era when the Mass was in Latin), or is there more to it? Are there other examples?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Transliteration of foreign names:
  2. Foreign Name -- Translate or Transliterate (or Copy)?
Tracy Johnson (www):
Forget Leo and Fyodor, I want to know the translation of Boris and Natasha!
6.11.2007 5:04pm
Armen (mail) (www):
Stupid Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
6.11.2007 5:18pm
texas lawyer (mail):
I don't think Joe Green has quite the ring to it that Giuseppe Verdi does.
6.11.2007 5:22pm
steve lubet (mail):
Names are idiosyncratic, i suppose, but what about titles and royalty? For example, we speak of the French and Spanish "kings," but the Russian tsars (or czars, which i've never understood) and the German kaisars. It's not just Europe: we also refer to the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but the sultan of Oman, the emir of Kuwait, and the shah of Iran.
6.11.2007 5:23pm
JLR (mail):
Re Anglicization of names from Latin-alphabet languages:

The first example that came to mind for me was Christopher Columbus. It's Anglicized from the Latin Christophorus Columbus. In Italian, he's known as Cristoforo Colombo. And in Spanish, he's known as Cristobal Colon.
6.11.2007 5:26pm
Zathras (mail):
I am in an academic department with a large Chinese population. Many of the Chinese here tend to choose to be known by English names which sound close to the Chinese equivalent:

Juihan --> Jason
Tingyao --> Tina

It tends to give them some more familiarity with their students and prevents the butchering of their names.
6.11.2007 5:26pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
Sometimes we don't translate into English in order to make things sound more foreign and threatening. Examples are "luftwaffe" and "cosmonaut". By the way, the title of the translation I possess of the book commonly known as "Anna Karenina" is "Anna Karenin"!
6.11.2007 5:26pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Natasha is Natalie. Boris is just Boris. LTEC: Why not Anne Karenin, then?
6.11.2007 5:31pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Other examples:

Gustav Adolf of Sweden is usually rendered in English as Gustavus Adolphus.

Ivan and Johan are nearly never rendered as John.

Friedrich is usually rendered as Frederick, though Rotbart becomes Barbarossa.

Karl der Groesser is rendered as Charlemagne rather than Charles the Great.

Louis retains its French pronunciation while Henri becomes Henry and gains the English pronunciation.

I don't have a unifying theory other than idiosyncrasy or fashion, I'm afraid.
6.11.2007 5:31pm
Mark Field (mail):
Remember alphabet changes too. Iulius is now Julius because we've added the letter j since Roman times.
6.11.2007 5:47pm
anonVCfan:
Someone should make up a theory and post it on wikipedia.
6.11.2007 5:49pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Columbus actally changed his own name as he went from country to country -- in Portugal, I believe he went by Colom.

The medieval custom was to adapt your name by picking a last name from the new country's language that resembled the pronounciation of your last name. The other custom, esp. among scholars, was to translate your name into Latin and go by that.
6.11.2007 6:02pm
Dave N (mail):
I'm with anonVCFan, that would solve the problem.

My guess (and it is just that) is that someone, at some point, decides whether a name needs to be "Anglicized" and how to do so. Thus "Josef" Stalin because the "f" at the end makes it clear he is foreign. Sometimes we try to Anglicize names and fail, because the original spelling is just as easy "Adolph" Hitler never caught on, for example.

Finally, the more "English" a name looks, the less likely zomsons will change it. Thus, Gorbachev's first name remained "Mikhail" and was never "translated" into "Michael" (I also note that for a long time, Russian and Eastern European surnames often were translated into "ff" instead of "v" at the end (Romanoff vs. Romanov, for example). This runs counter to EV's theory--and the examples he posits seem to go both ways. But as I said at the beginning, this is just intelligent guesswork on my part.
6.11.2007 6:03pm
M (mail):
With Tolstoy I also wonder if most English speakers think of his name as being a diminutive for Leonardo or Leopold or something, even though it isn't. "Lev" means Lion in Russian and according to me wife and her friend (both Russians, the later with a son named "Lev") it doesn't have any special non-animal name meaning when used as a name. The animal at the Moscow zoo has a signed saying "Lev" for example. But it would be a bit strange to call someone an animal name as a real name, as opposed to a nick name, in English. (Tiger Woods, of course, is the exception but it's an odd one.) [Are Leonardo or Leopold related to lions in some way? I really don't know.] It would sound funny as hell to really translate Tolstoy's name and call him Lion Tolstoy, though.
6.11.2007 6:04pm
dearieme:
For the 250-300 years when the Kings of England were Frenchmen, we anglicise their names. He really wasn't William the Conqueror, was he? And presumably the College of William and Mary should be Willem and Mary? I suppose really your War of Independence was against King Georg.
6.11.2007 6:10pm
DrGrishka (mail):
That's an intersting question, and not unique I suppose to Russian names. For instance Itzhak Rabin was always that (as opposed to Isaac) while Binyamin Netanyahu is just as often referred to as Benjamin, while his borther Yonathan is referred to as Yoni or Yonathan (but rarely Jonathan). Same is true for Yossef Beilin.
6.11.2007 6:15pm
A.C.:
I believe that the Germans refer to the French "Louis" series (I didn't want to say "Louises") by the name "Ludwig." I like the idea of Ludwig XIV.
6.11.2007 6:23pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
I remember seeing a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit in Montreal advertised as "Léonard de Vinci", which struck me as odd; we don't call him "Leonard of Vinci" in English-speaking countries.
6.11.2007 6:41pm
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
Southeast Asian names are usually romanized with a system that has its own rules, not quite the same as standard English phonetics. "Th" and "ph" are just the regular English "t" and "p", not like "the" or "phonetics". "T" and "p" without an "h" are for the unaspirated versions, as in "sty" or "spy".

As very few Americans know these rules, Asian kids have their names mispronounced by teachers all the time.
6.11.2007 6:43pm
Laura S.:
Perhaps the connection is chronological: different sentiments at different times created systematic differences. i.e., now we generally feel that translating a person's name devalues their culture. I believe this explains the difference between Joseph Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Meanwhile astronaut versus cosmonaut actually reflects a nuanced specificity. The space-race was nationalist, country focused. Thus nationality was an important descriptor.
6.11.2007 6:43pm
Syd (mail):
When we write the names of Spanish kings, we usually talk of Charles II and Philip II instead of Carlos II and Felipe II, but the current king is referred to as Juan Carlos rather than John Charles. I think English speaking people who refer to Charles de Gaulle tend to pronounce his first name in the English manner, but they pronounce Louis Pasteur's first name in the French manner.
6.11.2007 6:48pm
Seamus (mail):
Any ideas why Lev Tolstoy's name is translated as Leo, while that of Lev Bronshtein (Trotsky) is translated as Leon?
6.11.2007 6:54pm
LM (mail):
Would someone please tell me why in Santa Monica we have a Saint Monica's Catholic Church? (Saint Monica's is, I believe, the home church of our Governator, which raises a whole other raft of transliteration issues... but I won't go there.)
6.11.2007 7:17pm
Houston Lawyer:
I have always found it frustrating to read a Russian novel. It takes about 200 pages to figure out the naming of the different characters. While I know that this accurately reflects the original, for the uninitiated, it is bothersome.

I saw an old German map of the world for sale. The German name for the Pacific Ocean is Stille Mar. How often we forget that some proper names are actually descriptive.
6.11.2007 7:22pm
StevenK:
I've always felt Uncle Vanya sounds too exotic. A better translation would be Uncle Jack.

I'm reminded of the Woody Allen line about how the Russian Revolution started when the people realized the Czar and the Tsar were the same person.
6.11.2007 7:31pm
ys:

Any ideas why Lev Tolstoy's name is translated as Leo, while that of Lev Bronshtein (Trotsky) is translated as Leon?

Harder to guess about Leo, but likely it came through French, whereas Leon - through Spanish (by way of Mexico). Not that there are not cross-use cases in these languages.
6.11.2007 8:02pm
ys:

steve lubet:
Names are idiosyncratic, i suppose, but what about titles and royalty? For example, we speak of the French and Spanish "kings," but the Russian tsars (or czars, which i've never understood) and the German kaisars. It's not just Europe: we also refer to the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but the sultan of Oman, the emir of Kuwait, and the shah of Iran.

Starting at the end, the Arabic names are mostly direct translations. E.g., both Jordan and S.Arabia are Mamlakat (most closely translated as "kingdom", compare with the Hebrew "melech"), whereas Oman is a Sultanat. There is some logic, but not necessarily as an actual explanation, in translating the French and Spanish titles as kings (the originals coming from the Latin Rex). The German and Russian native titles are both derived from Caesar, claiming the Roman inheritance. Not surpisingly, they are alternatively translated as Emperor. Conversely, Slavic words for king are derived from Carl, aka, Charlemagne.
And for good measure, Napoleon was titled Kaiser in German (in German it is a generic word for emperor).
6.11.2007 8:20pm
ys:

I've always felt Uncle Vanya sounds too exotic. A better translation would be Uncle Jack.

He should be damn exotic! Do you think it's just really Wally Shawn in reverse translation?. So should be Anna Karenina. Unless, of course this is Shakespeare in the barrio approach.
6.11.2007 8:47pm
k parker (mail):
Doug,

"Karl der Groesser is rendered as Charlemagne rather than Charles the Great Big Chuck."

There, fixed it for you. :-)
6.11.2007 8:59pm
Armen (mail) (www):
M, all roads lead to Lion. Lev, Leo, Leon, Leonard, Leonardo, Leon, Levon, etc. all mean lion.
6.11.2007 9:01pm
Armen (mail) (www):
2nd Leon = Leonid.
6.11.2007 9:02pm
ys:

Armen :
M, all roads lead to Lion. Lev, Leo, Leon, Leonard, Leonardo, Leon, Levon, etc. all mean lion.
2nd Leon = Leonid.

Just to be a stickler:

Leonhard is not just lion, but lion-strong
Leonid is essentially a patronymic, like [Peter] Ilyich [Tchaikovsky], [Suleyman] Ibn-Daoud, [Snorri] Sturluson, or [Rembrandt] Harmenszon [van Rijn]
6.11.2007 9:30pm
ohwilleke:
The style manual rule is to use the standard system of transliteration currently in effect unless through wide useage and the passage of time a non-standard transliteration has acquired so much currency that it would confuse the reader to do otherwise.

In other words, if you screw it up for a long enough time to enough people it magically becomes correct by definition.
6.11.2007 10:09pm
Former Law Review Editor:

I saw an old German map of the world for sale. The German name for the Pacific Ocean is Stille Mar. How often we forget that some proper names are actually descriptive.


German tends to do this. Hippopotamus, for example, literally means "river horse" in Ancient Greek, and is called some variant of the Greek root in most languages.

The animal's name auf Deutsch?

Flusspferd. River Horse.
6.11.2007 10:17pm
Jay C (mail):
LM:
Whether you want to go to St. Monica's or not (dunno why not, it's a nice church) - the name of the town it's in is officially the "City of Santa Monica" - as in the original Spanish: while convention dictates that saints' proper names are usually given in the official or prevelant local language - hence "Saint" Monica for the church dedicated to her. And course, in Spanish, it is rendered as "Iglesia de Santa Monica" anyway; so no prob.

Oh, and M: Tiger Woods ISN'T an exception: his birth name was Eldrick Woods: "Tiger" is indeed, a nickname.
6.11.2007 10:23pm
ys:

German tends to do this. Hippopotamus, for example, literally means "river horse" in Ancient Greek, and is called some variant of the Greek root in most languages.

The animal's name auf Deutsch?

Flusspferd. River Horse.

And what do you think "walrus" is if not "whale horse"
6.12.2007 2:58am
Sk (mail):
And similarly with place names.

Why is the German city Koln) pronounced and spelled 'Cologne' in English?

Why Moskva is Moscow?

Why Roma Rome?

I've always wondered this.

Sk
6.12.2007 10:06am
Aleks:
Re: Why is the German city Koln pronounced and spelled 'Cologne' in English?

The Latin name (the city began as a Roman military settlement) was Colonia Aggrippina (Agrippa's conlony-- i.e., settled by that general's veterans). The latter half of the name was dropped long before the Empire bit the dust, so it became simply Colonia, which came down into French as Cologne while the Germans shorted it further to Köln.

Re: Why Moskva is Moscow?

Russian (and general Slavic) /v/ evolved from a /w/ sound, and may still have had a bit of a /w/ sound to it when the English first visited Muscovy in the 16th century. So they may have heard "Moskwo" for the city name ("a" and "o" sounds are also a bit intrechangeable in Russian) which then got further garbled to "Moscow".

Re: Why Roma Rome?

In French final "a" weakened to a null (schwa) vowel, spelled "e", then dropped altogether. We got the name from the French. (Alternatively this same development could have happened in English even without the French: English also weakened many of its final vowels, then dropped them with the median vowel lengthening; hence all those silent e's on our long mid-vowel words)
6.14.2007 2:50pm