Dmitry Chesnokov has an article on the “End of Russian player names as we’ve known them”:

From the IIHF:
Q: So what has been wrong with how the names were transcribed until 2010?
A: Simply, the English transcription didn’t reflect how Russians really pronounce their names. And this is the whole point of transcription — to write Russian names with Roman letters so it comes as close as possible to the original pronunciation.
Q: Can you give some examples of that?
A: Take a name like Fyodor. It most places it was “Fedor” which is wrong. The Pittsburgh Penguins star Malkin’s first name must be spelled Yevgeni and not “Evgeni” or “Evgeny”. Very few Russian first names start with an “E-sound”. Two examples are Enver and Eduard. The first sound in the original spelling of Malkin’s first name is Cyrillic “E”, which looks like the Roman “E” but is pronounced “Ye”. Thus: Yevgeni.
The IIHF added, “We are three years away from the first Olympic hockey tournaments in Russia. We felt that come Sochi 2014, the names of the hosting country should be transcribed correctly. It’s long overdue already. But primarily, we wanted to get it right.”

The idea that this is “right” and the former system “wrong” is of course absurd. But the change is certainly worth it for people like Washington Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who was tired of being called Semen. Who can blame him? (Thanks, Keith!)


  1. I chafe at phonetic transliterations in an academic context, since they can be very variable and annoying to pin down by search (compared to, say, the LoC style), but here I really don’t know how that wasn’t the default standard before.

  2. I’ve never, ever seen the spelling ‘Gorbachoff’.

  3. michael farris says

    In the absence of a pinyin style official romanization of Russian (or anything like a standardized English system for doing the same) I’d leave the first option up to the players.
    And are there Czech players? Just dropping the diacretics without any other respelling is going to make Czech names pretty indecipherable as well.

  4. “But primarily, we wanted to get it right.”
    The idea that this is “right” and the former system “wrong” is of course absurd.
    Be fair, Language: what they want to get right is the pronunciation of the players’ names. Civilians couldn’t care less about different systems of transliteration or how the electricity gets to their hairdryer from the power station. It’s shameful that Semyon Varlamov should have been treated this way; poor soul, I hope he wasn’t bullied.

  5. A unified system is good, but the simplification rule looks strange: iy becomes i, so Dostoyevsky would become Dostoyevski. Spelled like this, the name looks fat in the middle and skinny in the end. Quite unlike the russian spelling Достоевский. Feels like oversimplification to me.
    But then, maybe I just like the way I spell my last name.

  6. How is one to translate (or transliterate) words that have segments or clusters not in the target language?
    The IPA would be one solution. However, this would be as foreign to most hockey fans (and non-hockey fans for that matter) as a foreign script. And attempting to pronounce exotic segments and clusters without supervision could be dangerous.

  7. I had no reason to challenge the stereotype that hockey player = dumb jock until I taught guys on the Yale hockey team.
    Then I read this from the NY Times, and it gave me additional respect for hockey players —
    Coaches for the Montreal Canadiens are expected to speak French. (All coaches for the last 40 years have been bilingual.)
    [NY times] “Captains, too, are expected to try, at least, to speak French.”
    But the roster of hockey players covers many countries. Montreal’s longest-running captain (13 years with the team, 9 as captain) was Saku Koivu from — you guessed it — Finland.
    “Last week, he told La Presse of Montreal that not winning the Cup was “my only regret.”
    He added a second regret when he said he also wished he had learned to speak better French.”
    Me too. (Not about the Cup. About French.)

  8. I like the story (true or not) that Гарри Каспаров was told that while “Harry Kasparov” was a more accurate transliteration, “Gary” would play better as a first name with Americans.

  9. Oh boy, hockey and linguistics, my two favorite things!
    On a serious note, Cherie was right that the rosters of NHL teams usually covers many countries. And it’s not only the Russian names that are mispronounced. Sure, Koivu is pretty easy to say, but how about his fellow Finn, Antero Niitymäki, who not only has the umlauts dropped from his name, but also has the correct pronunciation of his name mangled every time a non-Finnish speaker says it (I will say, though, that hockey announcers are usually pretty good with names)?
    Then there’s the Czechs, Slovaks, Swedes, and the list goes on. So, no matter what, the transliteration/transcription/pronunciation/whatever is not going to be perfect. I think the IIHF is doing a good job for trying to get the pronunciation right, though.
    I think, LH, your claim that “the idea that this is ‘right’ and the former system is ‘wrong’ is of course absurd” is both right and wrong. While there is no right and wrong, there has also been no real system. Names like “Evgeni” are transcribed as “Yevgeni” in other hockey playing countries (Finland and Sweden – ok “Jevgeni,” but that’s on account of how the Finnish “j” is pronounced like and English “y”). This means they have been historically mistranscribed if correct pronunciation is the goal. So the new way is “right”. On the other hand, players have always had the option of dictating how their name is to be spelled. Nikolay Zherdev, a native of Ukraine, had the final “i” on his name changed to a “y” at the start of this season. Nikolai Khabibulin is just fine with the “i”. So it is absurd to think of a right and wrong way. If they wanted to be “right” with their system, they would just put each name on there as the player writes it in their own language. If anything, the change to a more rigid system of transcribing names is more right than the old system of just transcribing names willy nilly, especially for players who enter the league and are unable to speak English or French and later find out the announcers have been calling them Semen.
    In conclusion, Go Flyers!

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    Can someone knowledgeable on the subject comment on whether the IIHF transliteration system is actually a new creation or simply duplicates one of several contending systems already out there and if so which one? Why not just pick the system (if there is one consistent system . . .) typically used by Anglophone newspapers discussing Russian politicians? It sounds from the article like the problem may have started because of a Soviet practice of transliterating out of Cyrillic on passports in a way that made sense for French as the target language. But the French have always transliterated Russian a bit differently, as makes sense for a different target language (French wikipedia has an article on the composer Piotr Ilitch Tchaïkovski, for example, while Swedish has Pjotr Iljitj Tjajkovskij), and it just seems wacky for English-language institutions to slavishly adopt a transliteration not originally intended for Anglophone use. Is that really what the NHL did? Of course, perhaps Russians playing for Montreal should get a more Francophone-friendly transliteration . . .

  11. Which way of translation to use depends on the purpose of the transliteration. It might be necessary to have the possibility of reconstructing the original text. In another case it might be necessary that the transliteration sounds like the original language when read aloud. For linguistic publications or financial translation again another system applies.
    One probably has to get used to the fact that adecision has to be made between those methods, whatever disadvantages there might be. Furthermore, pure transcription is generally not possible, because Russian contains sounds and distinctions not found in English.

  12. And it’s not only the Russian names that are mispronounced.
    Right, Slovaks suffer too – here in Boston everyone pronounces Zdeno Chara’s [‘xaːra] last name “‘tʃɑrə” or even “‘tʃɑrər” before a vowel.

  13. I imagine commentators avoided giving Miroslav Šatan’s surname the obvious mispronunciation; although the correct pronunciation also has unfortunate resonances in English.

  14. Also Retief Goosen, the South African golfer, whose name is pronounced pretty much as it looks by US and British commentators, although the authentic pronunciation, I believe, is more like a cat producing a hairball.

  15. I think it’s a Flemish name, which would account for it being used by golfing Boers. There’s a famous (in England) family of musicians called Goossens who moved to Britain from Belgium in the late 19th century.

  16. At least they are not demanding that Russian names should be ‘correctly’ stressed!
    At school we had a boy called Semenov (Semyonov), quite a girl-chaser. Being a specialised English school, we nicknamed him Sémen even though he liked to be called Sam. Another Russian Semen, a broadcaster in English, simply never used his Russian name, but only Simon.
    Is there a Vagin in the NHL?

  17. @Zythophile: I’ve never heard that and I find it baffling. First, because I don’t think Americans prefer “Gary” to “Harry”, and second because Kasparov’s name is pronounced in Russian with a G not an H.
    I have noticed that Harry Potter is – despite the recent preference of Russians to go for sound -hence Дебби Харри and Брайан Харри (Debbi Kharri, Brayan Kharri), among others – is Гарри (Garri). I’d imagine that’s because Гарри is already a good Russian name…

  18. John Emerson says

    Musorgsky called Tchaikowsky “Sadik Pasha” after the Polish anti-Russian rebel Michał Czajkowski, who fled to Turkey and became a Muslim. Whether he also spelled his name Czajkowski, or whether it would have been possible for him to do so, I don’t know.

  19. I studied Russian for 3 years and it was by far the most interesting language to learn. I know it’s sometimes hard to transliterate all names in certain languages. I like the sound of Russian and even though some words sound a bit rough (I think someone here described it as a “hairball”), the language does tend to have a constant flow.

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