Language Matters - April 1, 2024 - 3 min

Does a Rose By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

Back in the 1500s, a Polish man named Mikolaj Kopernik proposed a heliocentric model of the universe. Or was that Nicolaus Copernicus? In fact it was both, or rather just the one, for they are the same man. In English, Mikolaj Kopernik is referred to as Nicolaus Copernicus. In Making It Up: Coinages and Translations in Fiction, we discussed how translators make stylistic choices when translating fictional characters’ names. In real life, there isn’t a literary mood to match, so why do we translate real people’s names sometimes? In this instalment of Language Matters, we look into why many historical figures’ names are translated, and how cultural and linguistic contexts can influence personal name choices.

The First of Their Name

The King Henrys and King Philips of France, and the King Charleses of Sweden and Spain were (and are) not called as such in their home countries. In France, Sweden and Spain they are Henri and Philippe, Carl and Carlos, respectively. The names of popes work in a similar way. Popes adopt two new names upon their election: one in Latin and one in Italian. Pope John Paul II, for example, took the name Ioannes Paulus II in Latin and Giovanni Paulo II in Italian. Like European monarchs, though, popes are usually referred to with anglicized (or localized) versions of their names.

These anglicizations came about much like any other linguistic divergence: through language change. As Christianity and Christian empires spread across Europe, the names of emperors and biblical names also spread and took on pronunciations, or renderings, according to each area’s dialect. Over time, names that perhaps at one point sounded very similar took on distinct variations like the Italian Giovanni, the Irish Sean, and the English John.

Take, for example, the Norman king William the Conqueror. In the linguistic milieu of 1066 Normandy, he was probably known to his subjects as something akin to Willelm1. But over time, pronunciations change and languages diverge. The Norman name Willelm eventually became the English William and the French Guillaume, much like the cognates war and guerre diverged over centuries from the Germanic werro, based on patterns of sound change or preservation found in each language. It became traditional to render the names of such rulers according to the rules of one’s own spoken language.

The tradition of anglicizing names, however, is just tradition. Traditions are not always respected—as with the Kings of France named Louis, who are called by their original French name in English—and they dissipate over time. In the early 1900s, the emperor of Russia was always referred to by the anglicized Tsar Nicholas II, but at the same time the emperor of Germany was called Kaiser Wilhelm II just as often as Emperor William II. The latter case shows the growing departure from tradition, as the usage of the anglicized name declined rapidly after the 1920s and now he is almost exclusively referred to as Kaiser Wilhelm2. These days, monarchs’ names are not usually anglicized, although popes’ names still are.

Living in Translation

Tradition can explain some of the translated names of those who were not popes nor monarchs. For example, the Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto is called John Cabot in English. This pattern cannot, however, explain all translated names, especially when the version used in English is not an anglicization. Copernicus, for example, is a Latinate form, and the Polish composer Chopin is usually called by the French name Frédéric. For these exceptional translations, the answer is relatively simple: their works entered English-speaking culture through another language or culture. Copernicus published his works in Latin, as was typical for the period, and Chopin produced the vast majority of his work in France. But why did they change their names in those languages?

In the case of Latin name translations, these are accidents of grammar. Latin has a case system that necessitates nominal inflections. When the Polish man Kopernik wrote in Latin, he added the nominative ending -us and thus his name became Copernicus. Similarly, the works of the Chinese philosopher Kong Fuzi were transmitted to Europe by missionaries in China who rendered his name in Latin as Confucius.

For Chopin, there was no French case structure to adjust to. He faced a situation that many people living in multicultural contexts face, even today. Chopin was likely called Fryderyk by his Polish friends, but in the public context of publishing his work in France he was called Frédéric. People often, willingly or unwillingly, render their names in ways that fit into the linguistic communities in which they live.

In North America, for example, there are many stories of families having their names changed at Ellis Island when a clerk recorded their arrival3. Although not legally binding, many people kept these sometimes botched renderings of their names, as part of the process of fitting into a different culture. In other cases, economic pressures and racial bias in hiring can influence a name change4. However, much like the tradition of translating royal names has died out, it seems that such social pressures are declining. Some people are even reclaiming the names that their great-great-grandparents legally changed.

The Power of a Name

Now that you know why some names are traditionally translated in English, what should you do when you need to write about one of these people? Consider communicative efficacy: most people would not know to whom Kong Fuzi refers. For historical figures whose translated names are culturally ingrained, it may therefore be best to use the translated name. For living people, on the other hand, you will want to consider how they prefer to be named, or how they identify themselves in their published work. What might you like to be called, if you were (or are) part of a multilingual community?

  1. Pomerleau, Marc. (2022). Was it William or Guillaume? The Language of the Norman Conquest and Beyond. Silly Linguistics, (45), p. 28-36. 

  2. Google Books Ngram Viewer 

  3. Sutton, Philip. “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was).” New York Public Library, (2013). Accessed March 4, 2023. 

  4. Bernier, Liz. “‘Resumé whitening’ common among job applicants.” Canadian HR Reporter, (2016). Accessed March 4, 2023. 

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