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The Name Game, Part I

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Written by Basil on 10/23/2004 6:41 PM. Filed under:

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I have been considering the inconsistent and often ethnic way in which the Orthodox translate names. Consider these names: Yakov, Lazar, Vasily, Afanassy, Pavle, Pyotr, Dmitri, Theofan, Maria, Alexei, Aleksandr, Nikolai, Ioann, Ignaty, Elena, Iakovos. Or these: Athanasios, Ignatios, Photios, Vasilios, Symeon, Petros, Chrysostomos, Maximos.

Many of these Russian and Greek names have clear and recognizable English equivalents. Sometimes the English equivalent is used, and sometimes it is not. There seems to be no consistency whatsoever — only personal whim and ecclesial caprice. Why would the English equivalent not be preferrable on a consistent basis?

American converts sometimes take a name like “Nikolai,” in spite of the clear preference given to “Nicholas” by their language and culture. Such choices confuse me: What is the impetus behind such a clearly ethnic choice? The argument could be made that, perhaps, they are taking the name and patronage of a recent saint, one whose name is “Nikolai” and not “Nicholas.” But I have yet to see anyone in America take the name “Ioannos,” “Petros,” “Pavle” or “Pyotr.” It seems that “John,” “Paul” and “Peter” nearly always win out here.

A related problem is the translation of names in texts. This is where any consistency or preference for English equivalents is entirely absent. On the OCA website, the problem is most apparent. Take, for example, tomorrow’s listing of saints and hymns and its Synaxarion. Note these inconsistencies: Arethas/Aretha/Arethus, Athanasius/Athanasios, Syncletica/Synkletike/Syncletia, Sysoes/Sisois, Elesbaan/Elezboi, Theophilus/Theophil/Theophilos. Some of these inconsistencies are within the very same page!

It should be self-evident that a robust American church needs saints with English names; a look at mature Orthodox Churches in the old world also reveals that we should be working toward consistently Anglicized names. In the next installment we will look at what a consistent translation of names might look like.

See Part II —>

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6 Responses to “The Name Game, Part I”

  1. "Jacov" Says:

    Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen! Yes indeed Basil.

  2. Erich Says:

    Yeah, when I have a kid, there’s no way I will end up naming him Gleb, or something like that. It has to be something that sounds right to a native English-speaker’s ear. I often think that this is a sign of the exotic effect of Orthodoxy. People get too wrapped up in the exoticism of the new approach and take on names to reflect their obsession with that exoticism. It’s probably not something that could be called a rule, but my guess is it applies for many.

  3. basil Says:

    No, but you could give him St. Gleb’s baptismal name, David, and then name St. Gleb as his patron.

  4. Erich Says:

    Gleb and David are somehow linked?

  5. basil Says:

    David was Gleb’s name in baptism. See their commemoration on

  6. Venerable Melanie the Younger | Kevin Basil Says:

    […] I’m not sure why St. Melanie always sticks out in my mind as the feast of the Birth of Christ draws to a close. Perhaps it is because she is a wife and mother before professing monastic vows, or maybe it bugs me that her name is so often mistranslated. Perhaps it just sticks in my mind because I can’t figure out how one should pronounce the mistranslated name and have it not sound strange in English. muh-LANE-yuh? meh-luh-NEE-uh? See her icon? There’s no alpha in her name, so where’s the extra letter coming from? […]