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Bewildering Stories

Viacheslav Yatsko writes about...

Transliteration Woes

Dear Don,

Please correct the spelling of my first name: Viatcheslav instead of Viacheslav. Fortunately the same spelling was used in all passports.

In 1996 I got a foreign passport, in which my last name was spelt with initial ‘I’ according to French transliteration rules that had been in use in Russia since the 18th century. In 2000 Russian Parliament adopted English transliteration rules. At that time my wife got her foreign passport, in which her name was spelt with initial ‘Y’. So we turned to be two different people: she was ‘Yatsko’ and I was ‘Iatsko’. When traveling abroad we couldn’t stay at the same hotel apartment.

Then my foreign passport expired, I got a new one to become ‘Yatsko’. But I met with a new problem: since 1996 I have published a number of scientific papers as Iatsko. Shall I sign now as Yatsko to turn over a new leaf? My problems are trifles compared with problems of other Russians who singed contracts abroad.

This story is a good example of the job done by Russian politicians. They never care for the interests of common people, they work for themselves, they stew in one’s own juice.

Russian spelling is not so simple as you imagine, there many differences between graphic forms and their pronunciation. E.g. in ‘moloko’ only the last stressed ‘o’ is pronounced [o], the first two ones are pronounced [a], in ‘khleb’, ‘b’ is pronounced ‘p’ etc. The difference is that in Russian such discrepancies are regulated by distinct rules.

But Russian punctuation is much more complex. Many applicants gifted in their subject fields fail to enter the university because they make punctuation mistakes writing a composition — an obligatory entrance exam at all Russian universities. Hence a wide spread bribe-taking practice. When I was a university student I used to get bad marks for dictations because of punctuation mistakes. Then, when I was writing a final dictation to get credit in Russian, I felt a kind of inspiration and wrote it without a single mistake. The lecturer was so astonished (bewildered) that asked me to stay after the lesson to explain how I managed to do that.

Copyright © 2005 by Viacheslav Yatsko

Dear Slava,

Maybe we can reach a compromise: “Viatcheslav Iatsko” is the French transliteration, but “Viacheslav Yatsko” is English. We’ll preface your bio sketch with both.

I was aware that Russian spelling only approximates pronunciation and that one has to make allowances for allophones. In fact, Russian and English do much the same thing as you describe. However, I never realized that the punctuation was so complicated. Between the grammar and the punctuation, I’m convinced more than ever that Russians — unlike everyone else — put on their pants two legs at a time.

As for transliteration schemes, there are more than you can shake a stick at. For example, my dentist uses German transliteration for her name: “Djatchenko.” She could have spelled it just as easily “Diachenko” (standard English) or “Diatchenko” (French).

I prefer the German transliteration because it seems to be the most consistent. It’s also at least approximately phonetic; with the other transliterations, one is liable to wander far from the authentic pronunciation.

Russianists writing in English have tied themselves in knots with various transliterations. In one scheme, “c” was substituted for “ch” (or “tch,” if you wish, but the “t” is superfluous in English), and “x” for “kh.” As a result, articles (or papers) on Chekhov referred to him as “Cexov.” That is downright embarrassing. At least you don’t have that problem, and you and your family can safely share hotel rooms in North America!

Best of luck,


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