Alex(ei) at The Russian Dilettante has an interesting question:

…the names of a few major Russian authors are clearly non-Russian in origin, so that transliterating them from Russian into English mechanically, according to the standard rules (assuming their existence), does not seem the best method. Should we write Gertsen or Hertzen; Fet or Foeth; Khodasevich or Chodasiewicz; Blok or Bloch; Mandelshtam or Mandelstam; Shvarts or Schwartz?

I’ll add Gippius or Hippius, Veller or Weller, Dombrovski or Dabrowski (which should have an ogonek on the a to make it nasal), and Okudzhava or Okujava. Personally, I use the Russianized forms (though I sometimes slip and write Mandelstam), but I welcome all ideas on the subject.

And while we’re on Russian names, let me mention the hypothesis that Putin is a byform of the ancient aristocratic name Putyatin of the Tver district (like Pnin of Repnin); in the words of Pravda, “this means that Vladimir Putin is related to nearly all the royal families of Europe.”


  1. The word ogonek is a Polish diminutive. It means little tail or the stem of an apple.
    I suppose this should be on the list of Russian-Polish false friends, then. Was racking the old brains trying to think what огонь had to do with anything nasal.

  2. As indeed are we all.
    Btw here’s something else in the words of Pravda.
    Isn’t freedom wonderful? 😉

  3. “The president-s family tree is not traced before Putin-s grandfather Spiridon Putin, who left Tver for St. Petersburg at the age of 15. Vladimir Putin-s grandfather was a serious, reserved man of immaculate honesty. Spiridon Putin became a good cook. He worked in fancy restaurants in St.Petersburg before the revolution of 1917. Later, he was invited to cook for Lenin himself. When Lenin passed away, Spiridon Putin started working at one of Stalin-s dachas. Putin-s grandfather managed to survive this horrid period of the Soviet history. When he retired, he lived and cooked at a holiday camp of the Communist Party. Vladimir Putin describes his grandfather as a man who liked remaining silent most of the time.”
    News to me. My own great-grandfather made pretty much the same career — from a peasant boy in the Yaroslavl area to an apprentice and the cook at a wealthy Moscow aristocrat’s mansion to a cook and (unconfirmed) the chef at the Metropol hotel where Lenin & Co. dined after their move to Moscow in 1918. Some time in the early 1930s, he suddenly left Moscow for a much smaller town — a smart move, all things considered, or he might have been accused of poisoning some party boss.
    The facts that Putin’s grandfather was a cook and his family tree can’t be traced further only prove that he is of humble, non-aristocratic origin. Even if his name can be traced to Putyatin, it doesn’t mean much — serfs were sometimes given their masters’ surnames. The most famous example is Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

  4. I have a hazy remembrance that Blok was a pen-name, anyone know?

  5. Nope: “His father, A.L. Blok, was a scholar and professor of law at Warsaw University, his mother, Aleksandra Beketova, was a translator and the daughter of the rector of the University of St. Petersburg.”

  6. Actually, I have no idea how Blok’s paternal ancestors spelled their name — Blok or Block or Bloch or otherwise; I have not found much about his father besides what Blok himself says in his autobiography. His distant ancestor, a native of Mecklenburg, was a doctor at Alexei Mikhailovich’s court; a more recent one, Ivan Blok, a surgeon at Pavel I’s court, was knighted; his grandfather was still a Lutheran.
    Going back to the transliteration “problem”, I’d rather use standard rules for all proper names unless there is a good reason to deviate from them. Otherwise we could go too far in tracing the roots of surnames — e.g., Bryusov would become Bruce-ov, since his name is obviously related to a Scot called Bruce, perhaps even the most famous of them, Bruce the Sorcerer, an associate of Peter the Great. On the other hand, Hertzen, for one, is an artificial derivative from Hertz that his father gave his illegitimate but loved son for a last name. Similarly, I prefer Waginov to Vaginov not only because it eliminates an unwanted association with vagina (a strictly medical term in Russian, by the way) but because it came into being when the poet’s father, gendarmerie colonel Wagenheim, Russified his name in 1914 or 1915.

  7. Bryusov would become Bruce-ov
    And Lermontov would have to be Learmontov for the same reason. I agree about the standard rules, and disagree about Vaginov: the association may be unfortunate, but it makes no sense to import a W from a vaguely similar German name (and besides, it introduces an entirely pointless uncertainty as to how to pronounce the name).
    Oh, and by the way, it’s Herz and Herzen (no -t-).

  8. Shame on me! I’ve made this mistake before and has been corrected, so it must be a personalized case of the intrusive ‘t’.

  9. Hi – can someone out there please tell me how my name would be spelt in Russian cyrillic??
    Very many thanks to anyone who can.
    (Ms) Monika Fisher

  10. It would be Моника Фишер. Sorry it took so long to respond; I was distracted.

  11. January First-of-May says

    For what it’s worth, Putin’s family tree had now (and actually already by 2003) been traced to the 17th century. It’s serfs, as expected, and there appears to be no Putyatin connection either. The earliest records have them being owned by a non-reigning branch of the Romanov family.

    I agree that Bruceov and Learmonthov is silly (and Khodasevich is a sufficiently Russian name that a Polish translteration would only confuse); OTOH I’m fine with spelling the name of Anton Yulianovich Gramsci (a musician whom I had the pleasure to know in my early childhood) as Gramsci and not Gramshi (and perhaps even Antonio, like his famous grandfather, instead of Anton Yulianovich). And Jewish names in -штейн might as well be spelled with -stein (up to and including Weinstein for Вайнштейн).
    I don’t really like “dzh” myself (especially in initials – Russian tradition is to initialize names like Джон “John” and Джордж “George” as “Дж.”, which inevitably becomes “Dzh.” in transliteration*); the problem with дж is that it’s not actually necessarily a J: even ignoring the common “ge”, as in “George”, Чарльз Лютвидж Доджсон “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson” has two of those, corresponding to different combinations of English letters (…and yes, I know that the G in Dodgson is supposed to be silent). And even the naive “dzh” might well be correct in some rare cases (something like Podzhary).
    And who counts as Russian? Leonhard Euler spent a big part of his working life in Sankt-Peterburg (or perhaps Saint-Petersburg); this doesn’t mean we’re supposed to call him Leonard Eiler.

    *) then again, how does one initialize “George”, anyway, given that it’s pronounced nothing like what would be expected from the starting letter?

  12. and yes, I know that the G in Dodgson is supposed to be silent

    I sometimes tell people he’s a distant cousin of mine. (Which of course is bound to be true, depending on how freely you define “distant” and “cousin.”)

  13. easy-peasy.

    typical genealogical method is finding common links to royalty

    all you need to do now is find your own connection to English royalty. (It’s not as hard as it sounds. If you can trace your ancestry to 17th century English immigrants to Massachusetts, you are almost guaranteed to have links to royalty)

  14. January First-of-May says

    “My dear Gaynor,
    —­My name is spelt with a “G,” that is to say “Dodgson.”
    Any one who spells it the same as that wretch (I mean of course the Chairman of Committees in the House of Commons) offends me deeply, and for ever! It is a thing I can forget, but never can forgive!
    If you do it again, I shall call you “’aynor.” Could you live happy with such a name?”

    (C.L.Dodgson, to Gaynor Simpson, December 27, 1873; the politician being referred to is one John George Dodson – in the Russian edition of said letter, he is, of course, “Дж. Дж. Додсон”)

    In an unrelated incident in 1872, the aforementioned Mr. Dodson had written the following letter: “In the ‘Essence of Parliament’ in the last number of Punch you appear to give me credit for being the author of Alice in Wonderland, etc. I have no claim to that honour. I wish I had.”
    Said reference was apparently a trap for the actual author (whose identity was a very open secret).

  15. Oh dear. Sorry, C.L.! I can’t help my ancestors’ bad spelling!

  16. January First-of-May says

    Oh dear. Sorry, C.L.! I can’t help my ancestors’ bad spelling!

    Sorry. If that’s any consolation, it was apparently a fairly common spelling mistake (I think I’ve even found a few examples in the other direction when searching for that letter).

  17. David Marjanović says

    How did this happen? How did a silent g come to exist?

  18. @David: I expect via simplification of [dʒs].

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Let’s hope that Monica Fisher is still here (behind the scenes, as I don’t remember a recent post of hers).

  20. I’m pretty sure she’s one of the people who randomly drop by having googled something relevant to their interests, leave a comment, maybe check for a response the next day, and then move on with their lives. But if you’re out there, Monika Fisher, I hope the transliteration has been of use to you!

  21. Not anymore. After waiting restlessly, one finger at the reload button and never less than one eye at the screen, she finally got the answer she hoped for, pressed “Back”, and went on with her work.

  22. The delay reminds me of a joke that was supposedly told in Czechoslovakia in 1968: Why do the Soviets invade our country? – They don’t, they just only now got round to respond to our request for help from 1938.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I expect via simplification of [dʒs].

    That makes sense – it just keeps amazing me that this isn’t considered an obviously nonstandard, sloppy deviation from the spelling. But, considering Featherstonehaugh, I should have known.

  24. -How did this happen? How did a silent g come to exist?

    Genealogy comes to rescue.

    Ancestors of Charles Dodgson had surname Dodshon which in a few generations evolved into Dodgson. (evolution here is not phonological, but rather evolution of spelling. Perhaps Dodgson in writing looked better or was easier to write than Dodshon)

Speak Your Mind