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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Fake Words: Problems of Transliteration from Russian and Ukrainian


The late Fred Halliday – a Professor who once warned the London School of Economics against entangling itself with the Gaddafi regime – thought that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homelands is always negative. The idea is expressed in a posthumous collection of his essays, Political Journeys (Saqi 2011). Diasporas, especially moneyed ones, adopt a proprietorial attitude towards a homeland to which they have little or no intention of returning, whether the land is Armenia, Ireland or Israel. Diaspora organisations use their influence to support hardline positions against local politicians when those are inevitably tempted to pragmatic adjustments aimed at making peace with neighbours who, in the diaspora view of things, are supposed to remain enemies forever.

When it comes to soft power, to culture rather than guns, diasporas unite around traditionalist, conservative positions. Culture is something to be upheld and to remain the same, brought out for high days and holidays but otherwise preserved in a well-funded museum. Living cultures, of course, change all the time and those who inhabit them are lax about the boundaries between their own and those of their supposed enemies.

In Ukraine, for example, inhabitants are frequently polled and asked to identify themselves as either Ukrainian or Russian speakers and willingly do so. However, those who thus identify themselves are very often found mixing the two supposedly distinct languages, with or without awareness of what they are doing. This may well be true for a majority of the population, though those who are formally classified as speakers of a mixed language, labelled Surzhyk, are counted at between 10 and 20 % of the population. I think there is little doubt that is an under-estimate.

Left to their own devices, most speakers gravitate towards mixing and that is something language purists cannot tolerate. In France, the Academie Française fights an unending rearguard action against it.

In relation to Ukrainian, diasporas, notably in the USA, are on permanent alert to ensure that in writing about Ukraine, English language authors transliterate from good Ukrainian versions of words rather than equivalent but bad Russian ones. Thus it is that we have come to write about Kyiv not Kiev. If you don’t want to annoy your Ukrainian friends, but want to keep life simple, you can get by with a very simple App which converts the G in your translation to H and O to I, and so on. So Kharkov (a transliteration from the Russian version of the city name) becomes Kharkiv and the place name ending which indicates a town goes from –gorod to –horod. The list isn’t that long. 

The trouble with this way of trying to keep your friends happy is that you may end up using words which are not simply anachronistic but, worse, may never have been used by anyone until linguistic ideologues armed with their App inserted them into the pages of Wikipedia and other online sources. An ideologue and still less an App does not recognise that the road to error is paved with the mechanical application of things which may be good enough for everyday rules of thumb but not for more serious calculation.

Early on in her book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War On Ukraine (2017), Anne Applebaum mentions the well-known fact that “John Hughes, a Welshman, founded the city now known as Donetsk”, about the spelling of which there seems to be no argument, and goes on to say that it was “originally called ‘Yuzivka’ in  his honour” (p 9).

Oh no, it wasn’t! Hughes had been invited to the Donbass [Ukrainian Donbas] by Russia’s Tsarist government in 1869. It was no modest undertaking that was projected: Hughes formed an English company to raise three hundred thousand pounds for the construction of an iron smelter, a rail-producing plant, the development of coal mines, and the building of a long branch railway line to connect to the main Russian network. All this is documented in fascinating detail in Theodore H. Friedgut’s two volume work, published in 1989 and 1994 by Princeton University Press, under the title Iuzovka and Revolution, transliterating from the Russian Юзовка the name of this company town named after its founder. The Iu  at the front can be replaced by Yu to avoid the un-English feel of the former, but what tells us that this is a Russian word is the O in both the Russian original and the English transliteration.

Iuzovka or Yuzovka was briefly called Trotsk [after Trotsky] in 1923 though even now that’s hard to document, was officially renamed Stalino in 1924, and converted to Donetsk in 1961. I don’t think anyone ever called it Yuzivka. Yuzivka is an invention. It’s a fake word and to use it anachronistically is to allow a historical falsification. But when I googled Yuzivka I got 17 500 results, slightly ahead of Yuzovka, well ahead of Iuzovka. The ideologues have been very busy. It’s rather as if Flemish nationalists had gone through the Internet converting all occurrences of the very old French-speaking city name Liége into Luik which is what road signs in Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium now call it, sometimes to the confusion of naïve foreign motorists (they confused me first time I tried to drive there).

In a historical work to use Iuzovka / Yuzovka does  not suppress the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian identity; it reflects the fact that in the period of its existence until its name was changed, Iuzovka / Yuzovka was an overwhelmingly Russian town, planted in the Donbass by the Imperial government and built and managed by foreigners, of whom there were many. Hughes himself died in St Petersburg in 1889, but he was only there because he was negotiating deals for the Iuzovka plant.
Only by acknowledging that they did things differently in the past, even named differently, can one then go on to consider how the inhabitants of Iuzovka related to the surrounding and undoubtedly Ukrainian countryside. Friedgut is blunt:

“The nearby Ukrainian peasants were not on the best of terms with the mining settlements and viewed them as foreign both ethically and ethnically…. The relatively few Ukrainians employed in the mines and metallurgy works were also embroiled in ethnic tensions despite their acculturation to the dominant Russian milieu of the region” (volume 1, page 208)

“The separation of Russians and Ukrainians remained throughout the entire period [1869-1924]. Until the Soviet regime brought him by force majeure, the Ukrainian peasant was least inclined to enter the mines or factories as a hired worker, and first to leave it in time of crisis. His ties to his village were strong and directly at hand.  The Donbass thus remained within the Ukraine but not of it” (vol 1, page 331)

There was never a Ukrainian Yuzivka, only a Russian Iuzovka, and that is one reason why we have a problem still today, not only with names but with the guns of the Donetsk People’s Republic.








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