Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Latinization of Russian Street Signs Leading to Confusion or Worse

Paul Goble


                Staunton, October 28 – Russian officials are beginning to implement a law requiring that street signs be written in Latin script as well as Cyrillic by 2018, and the results so far in central Moscow are far from encouraging given that people now have to “Идти по ulicza, свернуть на street и выйти на ploshhad’,” as Profile.ru puts it.


            Launched in April 2014, the program has led to confusion about the topography of the Russian capital, with the phrase just cited being an example. In English, it would be “’go along the street, turn at the street, and go into the square’” (profile.ru/society/item/88007-idti-po-ulicza-svernut-na-street-i-vyjti-na-ploshhad).


            Ivan Bevz says that if the goal was to help English-speaking tourists make their way through the city, that goal has not been achieved because in fact what the authorities have done is not to translate anything but rather to make a letter-by-letter transliteration of Cyrillic into Latin script without diacritical marks according to government rules.


            But that introduces rather than resolves confusion because most English speakers who read the letter “x” do not think in terms of the Russian sound “kh” but rather the English combination “ks.”  That is also true, he continues, of the apostrophe and of several other sounds as well.


            If one was going to proceed by transliteration alone, Bevz suggests, it would have been better to use the International Civil Aviation Organization’s rules and make «х» equal to «kh», ч to “сh, and “ц to ts” -- although that would leave unresolved how to deal with the Russian “щ”.


            Given the fall off in the number of tourists from the West and the increasing share of tourists from China and South Korea, the situation becomes even worse because Chinese and Koreans use an entirely different writing system and so they get no benefit from the new transliteration system.


            Simple translation might in many cases be better, Bevz continues, but that too can lead to problems especially when the translated term suggests something that isn’t true or at least isn’t true any longer, such as Peasant Outpost for “Krestyanskaya zastava,” Hunter’s Row for Okhotny ryad, or Great Bricklayers for “Bolshiye kamenshchiki.”


            But if one is going to translate, one needs to translate correctly and not as officials in St. Petersburg did last year before the summit. What they did was truly appalling, Bevz says. They translated 1650 place names literally and by machine translation rather than using a dictionary.  The results were pathetic.


            Dom Molodezhi became Dom Youth because the machine couldn’t find dom. Prospekt veteranov became Veteran’s Pruspekt, which was the machine’s attempt to come up with something.  And one Russian name, Angliiskaya naberezhnaya, was translated not into English at all but into French: Promenade des Anglais.


            More problems lie ahead, Bevz suggests, and the Russian government should decide what it really hopes to achieve and what standard it will impose everywhere.


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