What’s In a Name?

On an editing note: Following the bombing of the Boston Marathon last week, I was curious about foreign coverage—at least on the German and Austrian websites I can decipher. The story was prominent, including the “Jagd für Nummer Zwei” (the Hunt for Number Two) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and “Welche Rolle spielt Tschetschenien-Krieg?” (What roll did the Chechen war play?) in Austria’s Die Presse. But it was Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s headline, “Die Spur der Brüder Zarnajew” (on the trail of the Brothers Zarnajew) that made me wonder: How do these names get altered phonetically from one language to another?

The U.S. papers are going with Tsarnaev, I presume, because that’s how their names are spelled on their IDs. Yes, how one translates from the Cyrillic differs in any number of ways—think Dostoyevsky and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Tolstoi, czar and tsar. But once these suspects decided on their official Roman spelling, as it would appear on passports, shouldn’t every news organization follow suit? Or would that just confuse readers? I’m guessing the argument can be made that if Mikhail Gorbachev applied for E.U.-German citizenship, his name would be Michail Gorbatschow (because w’s are pronounced as v’s, etc.). Even more confusing are Arabic and various Far East names. Is it Mao Tse Tung or Mao Zedong? Remember Khadafy and Qaddafi? Peking turned into Beijing and Bombay is Mumbai, but Munich has yet to be München and Vienna isn’t Wien in the American press. Editors are always in search of a master ruling (and if all else fails, defer to the New York Times style). But according to T.E. Lawrence (via my colleague Richard Starr), at least when it comes to Arabic, there is no master ruling.

Also, there is no easy way to spell the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk (English) / Dnjepropetrowsk (German).

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