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The Name Game, Part III

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Written by Basil on 11/5/2004 12:02 AM. Filed under:

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<— See Part I
<— See Part II

Based on the argument put forth in the last two articles in this series, names should not be transliterated directly from either Russian or Greek. It’s not “Pavl,” it’s “Paul.” A few examples that get under my skin:

I could go on, but the list would get too long. (It’s probably too long already.)

However, there are some examples that prove somewhat problematic. The rest of this post is about questions, by the way, not answers. (I apologize to all those readers who trust my pontifications without question.)

The saints named “Germanus”. Why problematic? Because the most popular American saint is actually a variant of this name: St. Herman. New Skete decided that consistency compels them to opine that “Herman” should actually be translated “Germanus.” The problem is consistency — with all due respect to Emerson’s famous quote about foolish hobgoblins, consistency is, indeed, important in name translation. Inconsistency, after all, is what started this whole discussion to begin with. So, is it “St. Germanus of Alaska”? Or “St. Herman, Patriarch of Constantinople”? Or perhaps it should be “St. German.”

Another is this name: “Iakovos” (Gr.) and “Yakov” (Ru.). In English, there are two names that equate: The obvious “Jacob,” and the less obvious but more truly English “James.” Once again, Emerson’s foolish hobgoblin insinuates himself, but let’s allow that exceptions can be made for exceptional cases. We can decide to go consistently with Jacob or James, and continue to call the Patriarch “Jacob” or the Brother of God “James” — since those are instantly recognizable. (This exception also applies to the “Germanus/Herman” discussion above.) But how do we translate Greek saints named “Iakovos”? Or Russian saints named “Yakov”? It would seem that popular opinion is siding with “Jacob”; I regret that “James” is not winning the day.

On the related issue of pronunciation: There is an American saint named “St. Jacob Netsvetov,” or “St. Jacob of Alaska.” It should be pronounced “JAKE-ub,” not “YAH-kove” or any other such ethnic foolishness. Part of proper translation means pronouncing English names like English names.

What about the mother of the Theotokos? Her name in English is properly “St. Anne.” Problematic because “Joachim and Anne” trips the tongue in a way that “Joachim and Anna” does not. (New Skete, in case you are wondering, goes with “Anna” in this case.)

Or the prince of the Apostles? Yes, obviously it’s “Peter”; I’m talking about his other name. In Greek, it’s “Simeon,” not “Simon.” Should all “Simeon” saints be translated “Simon”?

Another interesting question: Having properly translated the first name, do we also translate appellations that are pseudo-names? St. Alexander Nevsky, for example, I recently learned is called “Nevsky” because of a miraculous battle at the river Neva. “Nevsky” means, approximately, “of the Neva.” So, should we translate it St. Alexander of the River Neva? What about — to take a Roman saint — St. Thomas Aquinas. These aren’t really surnames; they’re place names. Should it be St. Thomas of Aquino? Or, to get meddlesome — Chrysostom? Again, we treat it like a surname, but it means “golden-tongued” and refers to St. John’s unparallel preaching ability. It would be like calling my patron “Basil Magnus” or “Basil Megas” instead of “Basil the Great.”

This is mostly intended as a starting point for discussion. I don’t think I’ll be calling St. Jacob of Alaska “St. James” anytime soon, since no one would know whom I was talking about. The same for “Germanus/Herman” saints. I’m sure my many thoughtful readers will be able to provide their own name-translation pet peeves. However, I will continue to use English names (as in the list above) in almost every situation, where possible.

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13 Responses to “The Name Game, Part III”

  1. alana Says:

    speaking from the perspective of cross cultural/cross linguistic growing up: Call the person the name their mother gave them. Are they russian, then they have a russian name. Did they receive their ecclesial name in greece? Then it is greek.

    My daughter has a German name: Maia. I’m not going to call her May or change the spelling of her name to Maya just to make Americans happy.

    Now, this might not be exactly what you are getting at, but just as persons are not truly translatable, IMO, perhaps so names should not be translatable either.

  2. basil Says:

    I’m talking about Americans translating anything into an American English context: hymns, synaxaria (lives of the saints), scripture, patristic tomes, councils and canons. I’m talking about Americans taking saints’ names that are gratuitously ethnic, because somehow it appeals to their desire to be unique or countercultural or weird or whatever.

    It’s hard sometimes to grasp just how strange all of this Eastern stuff is. The Gospel is enough of a burden without adding on all of the ethnicity stuff. Using English names when possible is a good start.

    As to living people, I still call Fr. Juvenaly “Fr. Juvenaly.” It would be rude to do otherwise. But I don’t have to think his choice furthers American Orthodoxy.

  3. alana Says:

    I guess what I was getting at: is there a saint Iakov, who was russian, or a Fyodor…from over there…that’s their name. His mama named him that, that’s his name. So we call them that, even if it was five hundred years ago, or whatever. But for us Americans…yes, we should adapt the Christian names to our culutre, I agree. Now, how do you translate:


  4. basil Says:

    Now you’re just baiting me. 😉 The reason I say that we should translate names is because we do. Only die-hard Hellenic Greeks and Russophiles think we should use the original names exclusively. That’s the point of the argument in the first post (The Name Game, Part I). Very few Americans believe we should change all those English names to Iesous, Petros, Andreas, Ioannes, Maria, Iakovos, Markos, Varnavos, Paulos, etc. (It might make Greek icons easier to read, though. We could also learn Greek.) My point is that we already translate these names; we should be consistent about it. Perhaps when you get to heaven, we’ll be introduced to these people by their “given” names. In the meantime, I don’t think St. Basil minds that I don’t use Vasilios, any more than I mind when someone calls me that, or Vasiliki (a diminuitive Greek form) or Vasily — if they’re Greek or Russian.

    Now, about those specific names…. The girls’ names are already translated according to the principles I’ve outlined in part the second (The Name Game, Part II). Theophan, like the other names, has no common English equivalent, so we seek a Latin equivalent, if there is one, or Latinize the Greek if there is not…. What we come up with is Theophanes (like the Athonite iconographer who painted the icons we have reproduced in the nave at StA). “–phanes” names don’t get mangled too much in their Anglicization — see Aristophanes or Metrophanes.

    Incidently, New Skete goes with Theophane, which seems strange to me, although they only have one saint by that name, the hymnographer of Constantinople. The Protection of the Mother of God website ( almost always goes with Theophanes, but Theophan wins out with the reclusive bishop and one other, a priest-martyr from 1918.

  5. alana Says:

    Unfortunately, he can’t seem to SHAKE “Wesley”….I was at prayers the other morning, and Fr. D prayed for Readers Gideon, Athanasius, and Wesley…..can we say…leftovers from “back when”?… tsk, tsk, tsk.

  6. basil Says:

    Well, all I can do is smile. It reminds me of when Rod Loudermilk took the name of Photius and Chuck Powell took the name of Barnabas at their ordinations in the EOC. The monks at New Skete really took them to task. They said, “If Americans keep taking the names of old world saints, how can we ever have a St. Rod or a St. Chuck?” Perhaps we need a St. Wesley. 😉

  7. James Says:

    Well, I think that when people come into a church and find people running around calling each other by names like Nicholai or Andronicus their initial reaction will be, “Cult!” and to run out the door.

    Anyway, wouldn’t the result of one of the approaches be instead of Jesus Christ, Joshua the Annointed of God?

  8. Erich Says:

    You know, I didn’t take a saint’s name when I became Orthodox because I was told I didn’t have to, and I thought it might be absurd to do so (thinking in terms of the future St. Erich). Also, because it seemed to me that many people did it just so they could seem like initiates into some mystery cult, which I believe James just pointed out. However, I have run into difficulties with this because of my travels. Russians and Greeks, if they want to give me a little icon, always end up giving me a Mary icon or something because I don’t have a saint’s name to give them any other idea.

    As to the names issue, my above argument obviously pushes me in the direction of annoyance when I seen names like Innokentii. However, one must also take into consideration the fact that American English (like any other living language) is not consistent. I would rather see a Maxim than a Maximus and would just as soon see an Alexei as Alexis. In both of these cases, the names coming in are obviously foreign, but so are your proposed translations. Why necessarily latinize? English has a Latin alphabet but is hardly a romance language. If something is more common in its Russian form than its Latin, why use the Latin? Also, it should be pointed out that these names are already transliterated from Russian in such a way that they are anglicized (Maxim instead of Maksim, Alexei instead of Aleksei).

  9. Erich Says:

    Oh yeah, and as to attachments, I think they should do it the way they generally do. For instance Sv. Georgii Pobedonostsev should be translated St. George the Dragon-slayer. However, I see nothing wrong with keeping Alexander Nevsky as Nevsky instead of “of the Neva”. In his case, the Nevsky is not instructive, so need not be translated, only transliterated (Nevsky instead of Nevskii).

  10. basil Says:

    Another reason why Biblical names were left out of this discussion. Though non-scriptural names do not admit of easy answers, as the present discussion shows, Scriptural names are even more complicated.

    However, since you brought it up, yes, Jesus could just as easily be translated Joshua according to a certain scheme, and both could be translated Yeshua according to another. According to a scheme that translated Jesus as Joshua, though, the same principle would force us to translate James as Jacob.

  11. alana Says:

    Holy Miriam, Mother of God, pray for us!D

  12. basil Says:

    Erich, as to why they should be Latinized, it is because the saints names that are already Anglicized — like Maximus — have come down to us from Latin. See Part II. In other words, when choosing among Maxim, Maksym, Maximos, and Maximus, clearly Maximus is the English version.

  13. Father Vasiliy Says:

    Is Outrage!
    Was it “an American English context� in nineteenth century Russia?
    No, it was not!