The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 30 Oct 2019

Russian names in English and English names in Russian

One day I was surprised to find that Michael Jordan's name in Russian is “Майкл” (‘mai-kl’), and not “Михаи́л” (‘Mikhail’, the Russian translation of Michael.) Which is just what I should have expected; we don't refer to Mikhail Gorbachev or Baryshnikov as “Michael”, and it would be just as odd, in the other direction, if the Russians referred to the famous basketball player “Mikhail” Jordan.

When I was taking high school Russian we were assigned Russian versions of our names and I was disappointed to receive “Марк” (“Mark”) rather than anything more interesting. My friend Jeremy was stiffed in a different way. Apparently there is no direct Russian analog of “Jeremy” so the teacher opted for “Юрий” (Yuri). Yuri is not in any way a correct translation of Jeremy; it is the Russian version of “George”. Looking into it now, I wish she had thought to use “Иереми́я” (Jeremiah), or perhaps “Иерони́м” (Jerome).

1688 engraved portrait of Kimg
James I of England, cpationed “IACOBUS I · Rex. Angliæ”. James is
shown from the chest up, wearing a stiff lace ruff and a dark,
close-fitting jacket of some sort. His beard (chin only) is cut in a
square and the ends of hus mustache turn up.  His hairline has receded
and left a little tuft in the middle of the top of his head. His eyes
are wide and bright, and his lips slightly upturned, giving him an
appearance of private amusement.
King James I of England

It's funny how sometimes these names can be so easy to translate and sometimes so difficult. Mark is Mark, Aleksandr is Alexander, Viktor is Victor, Ivan is John, Yuri is George, Yakov is Jacob (or maybe James), Fyedor is Theodore, nothing is William, and Igor is nothing.

Italian Maria is obviously English “Mary” but how do you translate Mario? English has no male version of “Mary”.

(Side note: it is so bizarre that James and Jacob are somehow the same name, that when you turn Iacobus / Jacques / Iago (Latin / French / Spanish) into English it somehow turns into James. Another: What knucklehead decided to translate Frère Jacques as Brother John?)

[ Addendum: My previous article discussed the Korean translation of 邓小平, the name of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Brian Lee points out that the usual Korean translation of Chinese小 (“small”) is 소 (pronounced, roughly, as /shoo/), but, just as in my Michael-Jordan examples above, the Koreans have chosen to translate the name so as to preserve the foreign pronunciation, 샤오 (/shya-oh/). Thanks! ]

[ Addendum: Dmitry Ivanov points out that there is a second Russian version of George, less common but closer to the English version: Георгий (“Georgy”). He also drew my attention to another Russian version of Jeremy, Ерёма (“Yerema”). This led me to discover that Russian Wikipedia has an entire page about Jeremy-related names, and mentions at least the following:

  • Еремей
  • Ереми́й
  • Ерене́й
  • Ерёма
  • Иереме́й
  • Иереми́й
  • Иереми́я
  • Ириме́й
  • Ярёма

Clearly, my high school Russian teacher blew it. ]

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