My transliteration style

When I was sixteen and majorly getting back into my Russophilia, I developed a rather purist, some might say nit-picky, approach to transliteration. I do letter-for-letter transliteration and never “translate” personal names. I also go one step further and use accent marks when I know where the stress falls. Accents aren’t normally written outside of dictionaries and language textbooks, but I feel it’s a courtesy to provide a pronunciation guide. For example, knowing if O is stressed or unstressed impacts the pronunciation. When the accent falls on O, it’s pronounced like an English O, but when there’s no stress, it’s pronounced like a long A. For example, Boris is properly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss.

[Update: As of July 2015, I no longer use accent marks. It came to feel too pretentious and nitpicky even by my standards.]

When an accent falls on the vowels Ye, Ya, or Yu, I don’t use accents. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that might give the impression of those being separate letters in Russian, instead of one complete vowel.

My style of letter-for-letter transliteration seems to be a more modern style, whereas some of the alternate styles you might’ve seen are based in a more old-fashioned approach, of perhaps enforcing Anglo norms and expectations on Russian spellings. But for me, those older styles don’t always give the impression of the true pronunciation. For example, I originally thought Tatyana was pronounced Tat-ee-ann-a, because I’d only seen the spelling Tatiana. The more accurate Tatyana spelling suggests the true pronunciation, Taht-YAHN-ah.

The letter E is and isn’t the same as the English E. It can take the sound we expect of an E, but more often than not, it’s a YE sound. For example, Nadezhda is really pronounced Nahd-YEZH-dah, not Nad-ezh-da. When it makes sense, I render the E as Ye, so as to avoid pronunciational confusion. Why use the spelling Ekaterina when the name is really pronounced Ye-kaht-e-REEN-a?

Why have a double E or an E after another vowel? That gave me false pronunciational impressions for awhile, like with the Imperial town of Tsarskoye Selo. I thought, based on the Tsarskoe spelling, that it was pronounced Tsar-sko. I thought the Anglicized version of the Russified form of Ukraine’s capital was pronounced KEEV, based on the Kiev spelling. When my non-Ukrainian and non-Ukrainophile characters say the city’s name, it’s rendered as Kiyev. The proper Ukrainian spelling actually transliterates as Kyyiv, but that just looks confusing, so I go with their preferred transliteration of Kyiv. It’s particularly weird to see a double E, like in Gordeeva. That makes it look like the famous skater’s surname is pronounced Gor-DEEV-a, not Gor-de-YEV-a.

Look at these names, in their Russian spellings, and see the final letter they all have in common:


They all end in й, a letter which is transliterated as Y. Many times, these names are transliterated with an I on the end, though the I sound in Russian is represented by и nowadays, and used to be represented by I. If they truly ended in I, they’d be pronounced differently; e.g., Ahn-dre-ee instead of Ahn-DREY.

It seems rather old-fashioned to render Ya, the final letter of the alphabet, as IA. When I see a spelling like Daria, Katia, or Tatiana, I’m going to want to pronounce the I and A separately, whereas the YA tells me that’s just one vowel.

And look at these names, and see what final two letters they have in common:


All end in ий, IY. Most people use one or the other letter since they probably assume a spelling like Yuriy or Vasiliy looks too weird to an Anglophone, though both of those vowels are used together for a reason. They’d be pronounced a bit differently if they only ended in one or the other. And frankly, a spelling like Vitaliy or Lavrentiy looks a lot simpler and more normal than Kyyiv.

On the same note, many people choose to represent the -iya ending on certain names as just -ia, though I of course choose to use the full, letter-by-letter transliteration. Maybe some people think it looks weird, but I don’t see anything odd about spellings like Mariya, Anastasiya, Kseniya, Klavdiya, or Lidiya. It’s just how they’re written. Using the YA after the I tells me how to accurately pronounce the name. A subtle difference is still a difference.

Russian does not have a letter X. It uses the letters K and S to represent that sound. For example, Aleksandra or Kseniya, not Alexandra or Xenia. The Cyrillic letter that looks like X transliterates as KH, as in loch or Chanukah.

Finally, the letter Ë is transliterated as YO, not E or EO. What spelling of the Russian form of Theodore most accurately shows its pronunciation of FYO-dahr, Fyodor, Fedor, or Feodor? Although I do leave it as ë when it appears in a surname, like Gorbachëva or Likachëva. The alternatives look awkward, like Kyyiv. Sometimes it’s necessary to go with a simpler transliteration, even if it’s not 100% accurate.


9 comments on “My transliteration style

  1. Arlee Bird says:

    You must have been a pretty deep-thinking 16 year old. I usually don’t think too much about pronunciation if I’m reading silently, but it sure helps to know the pronunciation if you’re reading aloud.

    Tossing It Out


  2. I love looking at foreign alphabets. I don’t think I’m too good with their pronunciation, though.


    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I love alphabets. It’s really something to reach a point where you automatically read a word as a word, instead of sounding out letters. The brain just registers those letters and sounds as a whole. I have that with Hebrew and several of the Cyrillic alphabets, in addition to the Roman alphabet. I really need to relearn the Armenian alphabet, which keeps going rusty on me since I don’t use it often enough. I can read Greek too, though I have to go a bit slower since I don’t look at it too often, and also need to step up my efforts to learn the Georgian alphabet.


  3. Cindy says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t even think about it that much when I was writing my novel (set in Leningrad in 1941). When I’m reading/writing out loud, I actually just pronounce it the English way! (same thing when I’m reading any books that may be written in another language). Do you speak Russian/have you taken classes before, or did this all come from just research?


    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I taught myself the Russian Cyrillic alphabet at 13, probably within about a month, and taught myself the language on and off till I finally began taking formal classes at age twenty. Eventually I learnt how to read the Ukrainian and Belarusian Cyrillic alphabets too, since they only have a few different letters from Russian.


  4. Chrys Fey says:

    I’ve been pronouncing Boris wrong this whole time! Eek! I’m part Russian but the language is far over my head. I think it’s awesome that you taught yourself the Russian alphabet at such a young age. You were ambitious!


  5. […] For more details on my transliteration style, please see this post. […]


  6. […] Transliteration. I’ve previously covered this topic here and here. To recap, find a style you like and stick with it. Don’t refer to one character as Mariya […]


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