I was amazed and delighted, reading the fat double Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker, to come across the following in the Aleksandar Hemon story “Szmura’s Room” (an excellent but grim story—I love Hemon’s manic, word-drunk style, but he does have a Balkan sense of the world):

“Микола, I would have liked so much to have you as my grandson-in-law.” “Пани Майска, I am too young to get married,” Szmura said.

Although it’s normal to see Roman text in Cyrillic books, I think this is the first time I’ve seen Cyrillic text in an English context (outside of scholarly works, of course). The odd thing is that in the online version, the passage reads like this:

“Mikola, I would have liked so much to have you as my grandson-in-law.” “Pani Majcka, I am too young to get married,” Szmura said.

I would have thought it would be easier to put the Cyrillic online than in the print version, but such does not appear to be the case. And why is the Ukrainian name Майска rendered “Majcka” when in the rest of the story it is given (correctly) as Mayska?


  1. Because in the transliteration system used by the person who decided to transliterate the online cyrilic, й is always rendered as aj?
    Literary transcription should tell you how to pronounce the word, but library transcription should tell you how it was originally spellled. Hence transcriptions like “chto” and ending in “-ogo.”
    There’s an unfinished debate in the Klingon translating community about whether something like “Rolex” should be left as is or transliterated, as somehting like “roleqS” considering that Klingon has an r but no R, and has no x, but of course everyone reading and writing it has the font and the keyboard.

  2. > I would have thought it would be easier to put the Cyrillic online than in the print version […].
    It probably *is* easier to do on their side, but perhaps they were considering the question from the reader’s perspective. When the New Yorker prints Cyrillic characters on paper, they know that what they print is exactly what the reader will see; if they put Cyrillic Unicode characters in a web document, some readers will see Cyrillic characters, and others will see a row of question marks, and others will see something else.

  3. Ah, yes, of course — I should have thought of that.
    Qov: I can (almost) see the j, but there’s no excuse for the c (=s). Besides, it doesn’t require much legwork to glance up or down a bit and see that the name is “Mayska” everywhere else.

  4. I’m not getting what’s wrong with the <j>.

  5. Oops. I didn’t notice that. I was fixated on the j. We can hypothesize a very creative person putting it online, substituting lookalike letters for all but the й. Sounds bizarre, but ASCII-based IRC chat programs use that and weirder ways to convey Russian.
    Whatever the justification, I agree, it’s the wrong transcription.

  6. Justin, are you so sunk in the morass of foreign tongues you’ve forgotten how j is pronounced in, you know, English?

  7. Heh! Touché. But does transliterated Cyrillic have to follow English spelling conventions? I mean we keep the <j>’s in words borrowed from German.
    Plus, I tend not to like using <y&gtй; to represent the /j/’s and palatalizations of Slavic languages, because then what are you going to do with the ы? I suppose you could use <ï>, but pretty much whenever I see <y> used for /j/ it’s used for ы as well.
    I suppose I’m wasting my time, as the distributions are (somewhat? completely?) complementary, but still, who likes spelling -ый -yy?

  8. In my case also, yes. The Eastern European context, for me, automatically triggers seeing “j” -> “y” (as in Janos, Janacek, Andrzej Wajda, etc) and given that, “ck” -> “sk” follows. “Madge-kuh” doesn’t get a look in as a possibility.

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