It’s probably just me, although I’d like to think otherwise. But I find myself annoyed when I come across books, written in English, referring to historical foreign royalty or upper aristocracy using an Anglicised version of their forenames. Thus, ‘King Frederick William of Prussia’ or ‘Duke John’ of Saxony. At first sight, it looks like some form of Anglocentrism, a subtle kind of cultural imperialism. Why, when they were given perfectly respectable names by their parents, should foreign royalty be re-named to suit English-speaking readers? Are readers so devoid of sense and imagination that they cannot cope with the names ‘Friedrich’, ‘Wilhelm’, or ‘Johann’? From experience, it is a practice promoted more by publishers than by historians or authors themselves.
But a swift survey of European text-books reveals something more complex. Foreigners are at it as well. King James of Scotland is referred to as ‘Jakob’ in modern German text-books and encyclopaedias (Brockhaus and Deutsche Biographie). And Heinrich, sure enough, preceded Elizabeth I on the throne of England. There is a whole host of kings of France identified as ‘Ludwig’ and ‘Franz’, with Nikolaus and Iwan named as emperors of Russia. Among the French (Larousse and fr.wikipedia.org), we still read of the British kings Jacques and Henri and of past German royalty named Fredéric and Guillaume. The Russians transform Charles into Karl, Louis into Ludovik, while James VI of Scotland becomes ‘Yakov’ (Great Russian Encyclopaedia). Spaniards, for their part, rather exotically describe the reigns of the English rulers Canuto and Enrique (Spanish Wikipedia). And those of you who fled the country, rather than suffer the recent coronation revelries, might nonetheless have been subjected to images of Carlos III (and his late mother Isabel II).
So many questions arise. Why is this convention largely restricted to members of the upper class? Why do famous writers or artists not get the same treatment? Why do we not discuss Charles Liebknecht, the German revolutionary, or the composer John Bach? (Although we do talk of Leon Trotsky, and not Lev…) Why do English-speakers baulk at referring to Lewis XIV of France? What exactly is going on?
Not all these questions can be answered here. But past practices clearly differed. English-language histories between the 16th and 18th centuries did indeed write of king Lewis of France; Shakespeare’s play Henry VI even has such a king Lewis with a walk-on part. And the Spanish in the 19th century went overboard with translating names: in several Spanish histories of England dating from the 1840s, it comes as a bit of a jolt to read about Guillermo Shakspeare, Oliverio Cromwell, and lesser players such as Ricardo Fox – the whole northern panorama of British history suddenly becomes quite Mediterranean in tone. Admittedly, things have moved on since then, and Spanish historians have fallen in line with the rest of us. But the general European rule still seems to be that royalty of old should be translated into an equivalent forename in the target language. The editorial guidelines of the English-language Wikipedia, for example, make it clear that the ‘Monarch’s first name should be the most common form used in current English works of general reference. Where this cannot be determined, use the conventional anglicized form of the name…’ Occasionally, this self-perpetuating practice still extends to powerful members of historical nobility; rarely, however, to anyone else.
The case of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II is perhaps instructive. Being effectively part of the British royal family, he was initially described fondly in the British press as ‘Emperor William’. But during the course of the First World War, he became transmuted into ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’, or simply ‘the Kaiser’. A rather broad-brush statistical analysis of the digital archives of the London Times newspaper throws up some interesting numbers: between 1910 and the end of 1914, there are more than 800 references to the ‘Emperor William’, and almost none to ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ (but 250-odd for simply ‘the Kaiser’); between the end of 1914 and the end of 1918, about 120 references to ‘Emperor William’, barely 70 to ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’, but around 2,500 to ‘the Kaiser’. (‘Kaiser Bill’ pops up half-a-dozen times, but only as reported Vox Pops.) Curiously, when Wilhelm was forced to abdicate at the end of 1918, the Times began once more to refer to him as ‘Emperor’ – with or without ‘William’. Clearly, a cousin in trouble at the hands of the socialists and republicans was one who deserved a more friendly appellation. So perhaps the use of a translated forename makes the individual more accessible, more amicable, more worthy of our attention; while the use of the original forename keeps that person at a distance, a potential enemy.
But this brings dilemmas of its own. Until recent decades, European forenames have largely adhered to the narrow selection offered by the Christian saints; but the naming practices of non-Christian peoples have ranged more widely. So you cannot readily translate into English the names Mohamed or Aisha (although you can readily spell them in many different ways), let alone Sanjay and Sunita. Chinese names do not stand a chance. Neither do names among the native South and North Americans, or the Pacific or African peoples. (The young Rolihlahla Mandela was given the name Nelson by a Methodist schoolteacher intent on imposing European cultural values.)
Then there is a whole shelf-full of worm-cans to be opened with caution. If historians and writers are being cajoled into translating foreign names into their own language, how are they supposed to cope with names from that other foreign country: the Past? Well into the 17th century, in Britain, even common forenames were subject to almost random spellings. For example, the official ‘Register of the Privy Council of Scotland’ for the years 1600 to 1615 displays a remarkable nonchalance towards correct orthography of names; here we come across instances of Jonet, Abigaell, Cristeane and Masie; and on the male side, innumerable Johnne, Chairlis, Andro and Waltir. (And although the secretaries got his forename ‘correct’, there is much charm in the reference to ‘George, Archiebischop of Sanctandrois’.) Should modern writers be translating these names to Janet and John and so on? Or could that be seen as an act of historiographical vandalism?
No less a problem is posed by people who change their own names to fit in with contemporary fashion. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish clan chiefs baptised as Angus frequently insisted on being addressed as ‘Aeneas’. They were only continuing a habit begun by the English some time earlier, in Anglicising Scots, Welsh or Irish Gaelic names. In the 16th century, Europeans were trendily renaming themselves in the Greek or Roman manner – half of the leadership of the German Reformation were at it: Luther (better than his birth-name ‘Luder’ – bait, carrion), or Melanchthon (from ‘Schwarzerdt’ – black earth); these, of course, are adopted surnames; but there is also the case of the German mineralogist ‘Georgius Agricola’, baptised more stodgily Georg Bauer. More recently, in 1901, there was the case of a Lithuanian, seduced into leaving his homeland for the coal-mines of Central Scotland; to make it easier for the miner to claim his weekly pay-packet, he had opted to change his name to … ‘John Smith’. (The British government soon put a stop to that kind of migrant nonsense: between 1919 and 1971, any foreigner settling in Britain was forbidden to change their name, except for a woman getting married.)
If it is legitimate to change forenames, is it also legitimate to change geographical names? Almost every country of the world has its own name for itself rendered in dozens of different ways by others; the same applies to regions, cities, rivers, mountains. But surely, if we British can cope with Schadenfreude and avant-garde and pasta, then we can cope with Suomi, Bayern (we’re halfway there with the football team Bayern Munich – properly München), Polska, Zhōngguó and Aotearoa? Or maybe that is all a step too far. (But note: the Chinese for Oxford is still niu-jin – literally, ‘ox-ford’; and for Cambridge jian-qiao – by a circuitous route, ‘sword-bridge’.) But, as a further complication, place-names can change even within their own country – Trondheim was once Nidaros, and Volgograd was Stalingrad was Tsaritsyn.
And what of the rendition of European names in ex-colonial countries? Almost certainly, they had their own names for, or rendering of, European plenipotentiaries and places. But such historical names are not easy to identify, partly because of the lack of surviving written documentation. I have only been able to find a few relevant examples. The Central American Nahua (Aztec) people were remarkably polite about the deadly plague which descended on them in the shape of the Spaniards, referring to their conquerors as teotl (‘extraordinary’) or importing the name ‘Castilians’ into their own language structures (caxtiltecatl). Meanwhile, the thriving language of the Maori people renders Scotland as ‘Kōtirana’, Wales as ‘Wēra’ – and France rather disturbingly as ‘Wīwī’. Pushing back on European ‘discoveries’, Mount Cook reverts to ‘Aoraki’ and Cook Strait to ‘Raukawa Moana’. But in regard to the rest of the world, experts in the field of non-European languages (that’s not me) should almost certainly be able to advise further on this whole question.
However, is the issue of place-names the same as the issue of personal names? It is clear that the naming or renaming of places by European explorers was an integral part of colonial acquisition. Place-names suffering from colonial transmutation should be – as they increasingly are – restored to native names. For the rest, a suggested rule of thumb: if you imagine a conversation with a native speaker, would they understand your rendition of their place-names? – if not, then you’re evidently wrong. (And, yes, you will still need to consider the sensibilities of your readers.)
The renaming of persons, on the other hand, is a more subtle issue. Questioning the practice is not necessarily a new thing, and it is good to know that it continues to be questioned. We have at least established that naming foreign royalty with Anglicised names is not a form of Anglophone Imperialism. We know that the English language is rampaging across the globe, driven by the seemingly unstoppable might of US tech empires and popular culture: other languages succumb, adapt or adopt. But personal names, so far, have been spared. And if everyone is at it, then it is more of a global cultural issue. In the past, the practice may have made the subject person more identifiable, more approachable: translating the name was shorthand for cultural acceptance; not translating the name kept the subject at a distance. Once more, perhaps the ‘conversation’ rule outlined above would guide: if you had the Kaiser round for tea, surely you would address him as Wilhelm, and not William or Guillaume?
We are never going to be able to understand every other human language. But we can at least try to name things respectfully.
If the issue of personal names is restricted to royalty, then perhaps, as good republicans, we should not be greatly bothered. But I remain bothered regardless. Translating foreign names is a practice requiring urgent overhaul; should we not turn the old practice upside down, and use the native name to indicate our capacity to accept difference? It seems to me that, by not using the names that others use for their own people and places, we (and that means we in all nations) are being, at best, lazy; and, at worst, discourteous bordering on passive-aggressive. And we are also making the tacit assumption that our readers cannot cope with too much foreign-ness. Neither is a good look in the 21st century.