Translating Russian Place Names*
We will first note how English deals with foreign place names in general, then place names encountered in Russian texts. We will then look at peculiarities of the map form of place names that appear in Russian texts and discuss how to deal with them. Finally we will see how Russian grammar sometimes obscures the precise map form.
Looking at Our Own Maps
We should first note how English takes liberties with other people’s property. We have conventional English forms for many prominent foreign places: Cologne for Köln, Rome for Roma, Spain for Espańa, etc. It’s no different for our treatment of Russian and former Soviet Union (FSU). We write Moscow (not Moskva), the Crimea (Krym), Georgia,Times New Roman,Times Roman,Times,Serif (Gruziya), the Caucasus (Kavkaz), etc. These forms follow few rules: why do we say Western Siberia but East Siberia? The terms Подмосковский бассейн, Прикаспийская низменность, and Чукотское море have entered English as Moscow Basin, Caspian Lowland, and Chukchi Sea.
The vast majority of map names do not have unique English forms; we borrow them presumably intact. This is easy if the original language uses the Roman alphabet, but we must transliterate names from languages using other alphabets. The multiplicity of transliteration schemes accounts for some of the confusion in English forms, but we should discuss those systems at another time.
Place Names on Russian Maps
Naturally, names appear in Cyrillic on Russian maps. Simple transliteration usually suffices, but sometimes deriving an English equivalent from the Cyrillic takes ingenuity. The FSU’s many nationalities and languages do not all use that alphabet natively. Be careful transliterating names of Armenian cities, for example, since they have already been transliterated once into Cyrillic.
In the post-Soviet world, not all placenames originally spelled with the Cyrillic alphabet can be transliterated directly from a Russian text. For example, Russians spell the Ukrainian city Львов, whereas natives spell it Львiв. Consequently, we should follow the Ukrainian and transliterate L'viv, not L'vov.
We should use original Roman-alphabet spellings when possible. The U. S. Board on Geographical Names has published an exhaustive index of place names, the Official Standard Names Gazetteer. Volume 42 is devoted to the Soviet Union, and the second edition (1970) includes seven thick volumes of "official" English versions of Russian and non-Russian names with their geographic coordinates. It helped me verify spellings for most of the Estonian place names which appeared in a Russian book on Estonian oil shales that needed translating.
The ear is a good ally in guessing non-Soviet place names. Pronounce the name aloud. If it is a prominent landmark you will often recognize it. If not, consult a world atlas or gazetteer. One of my favorite references is The Times Atlas of the World. There you may confirm places like Мод-крик, Филлах, Хейса остров, and Мон порог: Maude Creek, Villach, Heiss Island, and Mohns Ridge. Believe it or not, in one paper Немаха and Ньяно turned out to be Omaha and Llano (a Texas town whose residents pronounce their hometown LAN-oh, the a as in can). These last two unorthodox Russian spellings were confirmed by a map accompanying the article. I have not seen them since, but they illustrate the liberties that a Russian author may take.
Keeping in mind the idiosyncrasies of spelling in different languages, you may have to try several sound-alike possibilities. Place names whose native language does not use a Roman alphabet, e.g., Chinese, present special difficulties. It’s not easy to go from the Cyrillic Синьцзян to the Roman (Pinyin, not Wade-Giles) spelling: Xinjiang.
Everyone makes mistakes, and proofreaders of Russian printed material are no exception. Experienced translators often recognize typographical errors in texts and determine the intent from context, but find it nearly impossible to detect a typo in an isolated place name.
It helps enormously when an article mentions several places, whether Russian or "foreign," especially if they have close geographic coordinates. A couple of sites can fix the general region; then direct examination of a large-scale map may verify the rest.
Russian adjectives derived from these place names are treated in a bewildering variety of ways: Приморский > Primorskii, Primor’e, or Maritime; Прибайкальский > Pribaikal’skii, Pribaikal’e, Baikalian, or just plain Baikal; Зауральскмй > Transural, Trans-Ural, or trans-Ural.
Speaking of Adjectives
Some English-language authorities transliterate the nominative singular form of everything, even map names consisting of adjective+noun phrases. Thus you might see Severnaya Dvina, Novo-Sibirskie Ostrova, or Sredne-Sibirskoye Ploskogor’ye on maps published in this country. In some contexts this policy may be appropriate, but it seems awkward and pedantic. For better understanding, adjectives like these (and the nouns describing geographical features) should be translated instead: Northern Dvina, New Siberian Islands, and Central Siberian Plateau. However a few well known places like Novaya Zem’lya have names that have passed into English intact. No one would recognize it as New Land.
Transliteration seems to work better with more specific descriptive adjectives. Thus, Красные Горы might well be called Red Mountains in English, but Krasnyi Mountains sounds more authentic. The consistent use of the masculine singular nominative avoids confusion. Thus, one could refer to the Skalistyi River, Skalistyi bridge, or Skalistyi falls, despite the fact that the Russian adjectives have different endings, since they modify река, мост, пороги.
As with place names, English has conventional forms for some geographic adjectives. They are usually analogous to commonly used English forms of the corresponding nouns (Crimean, Georgia,Times New Roman,Times Roman,Times,Serifn, etc., but Caucasus Mts., not Caucasian).
Back to the Source
As an example, geological formations often take their names from local landmarks. If we knew that the hypothetical Молотовская формация were named after the village of Молот we would call it the Molot Formation. In unfortunate reality it could have been named after Молотов, Молотово, Молотовск, Молотовск, or even Молотовка It could also have been named after a landmark such as a canyon or a mountain. Gazetteer research is imperative here to winnow the possibilities.
Some texts will state a specific location, but ambiguities may remain even when the region is known. Consider a hypothetical dam named Канинсквя плотина on the Kana River. We might properly call it the "Kana dam." But if the dam were also near the city of Kaninsk, what then?
Despite best efforts, you cannot always divine the correct source name from its adjective. Sometimes you find too many possibilities, other times none at all. When this happens the only reasonable option is arbitrary transliteration of the masculine nominative form.
So You Want Rules
*This is a revised version of an article first published in the December 1991 issue of the Sci-Tech Journal of the American Translators Association. The article uses Unicode to display Cyrillic characters. Readers using Microsoft Internet Explorer and Windows multilingual encoding should see it properly.
© R. Michael Conner 1999–2001. All rights reserved.