Beijing in China is called Peking in the book, and Tianjin is called Tientsin.  Why?

北京 in Chinese can be approximated or mispronounced in many different ways.  When Wilton (in the book) was there in 1970, it was Peking in English.  Now it’s Beijing.  In another twenty years it will probably be something else — Banjan for instance.  The same goes for Tientsin/Tianjin.

People whose primary language is English mangle foreign names in at least four ways. We try to pronounce a foreign name correctly and spell it phonetically, but we fall short because we don’t have the character set for it (Chinese) and we can’t wrap our tongues around the sound as a native-speaker can. There is at least an honest attempt to get it right here, as in the name Tientsin, since modified to Tianjin.

Our second shortcoming is seen in the subtle changes in transliterating a name into English, as when Москва (Moskva), from the Russian, becomes Moscow, and when Mexico is pronounced as if there is a hard X in the middle. There is no linguistic excuse for this, but it is close enough that everyone lives with it comfortably. Italia is Italy and Roma is Rome in English, España has been accepted as Spain, Brasil is Brazil, Nippon is Japan, and so on.

Our next offense, to my ears, is the substitution of an entirely different word for the country’s name — using countries as an example. To name but a couple instances, Helvetia (Confoederatio Helvetica) to us is Switzerland and Deutschland becomes Germany. These substitutions have historical roots, but why can’t we refer to a country by its own chosen name?

The final insult is what I call the Leghorn effect. On the west coast of Italia lies a pleasant little city, not far from Pisa. I spent the night there once after watching the sun set over the Ligurian Sea (another example, but I won’t argue that). But is Leghorn the name the Italians have given the city? No. They call it Livorno. I can only imagine that an Englishman, perhaps a mapmaker in the 1500s, stumbled onto the place and, refusing to take the marbles out of his mouth as he spoke, spelled it on a map as he pronounced it.

There are examples of the Leghorn effect in place names, people’s names, and words we have brought into English from other languages. As an aside, really, but I must say it: I was a student of Latin for two years. People with no Latin background regularly “correct” my pronunciation of alumnae and fungi. I endure and usually resist counter-correcting them.

You might say it works both ways with proper names such as Leghorn, and indeed it does. However, when you hear “a-taz-you-knee” (Etats Uni) from someone speaking French, that’s a direct translation of “United States.” The Russians might call us America, but they also call us Soyedeenyonia Shtatee (Соединенные Штаты). That’s not an offense and doesn’t fall into any of my four examples here. It’s a direct translation of our country’s name into Russian. We did the same back in the days when we spoke of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a direct translation of their name for themselves at the time. There aren’t many countries whose names are composed of common words — mainly the the good old USA. But, yes, in some other languages we are neither America nor the United States (of America). The Leghorn effect works both ways, and I take no offense, but I do resist committing that offense against them.

I guess this qualifies as a rant. But in the book, Cold Morning Shadow, when you see Peking and notice that everyone now calls it Beijing, you’ll understand why.

At one point in the story the name, Elizebeth Smith Friedman is mentioned. You can look her up — she was for real — and her given name was truly Elizebeth. That’s not a mistake in the book.

When a couple of people from Romania appear in the novel, in conversation they speak of România. That’s their name for the country. In English, it’s Romania, and that’s how the name is rendered when the Romanians themselves are not speaking. Again, not a mistake.

There are probably other subtleties like this that I’ve forgotten, but I could not imagine submitting the text to a professional editor who would “correct” these details.

=David A. Woodbury=

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