February 10, 2011
Speaking as a Chesnokov, there's nothing worse than having your name butchered by someone else. The NHL is such an international league with the best non-North American born players that this butchering happens virtually daily.
There are different reasons for it, including the simple fact that some of these foreign names are not even spelled correctly in English. This is especially true for Russian-born players, and players from other countries that do not use the English alphabet.
The discrepancies in how foreign names are transcribed are the direct result of the difference in alphabets. For example, the Russian alphabet had 33 letters (two of which don't even have a sound) while the English alphabet, for example, has only 26.
For years, stemming back from the Soviet days, Russian names in Russian travel passports were transcribed into how they would be spelled in one of the two "working" languages of the United Nations -- French.
It created all sorts of troubles that finally the Russian national team, and Washington Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov(notes) requested the IIHF change how the organization spells players' names. Specifically, Varlamov wanted to have his first name spelled just the way it sounds: Semyon, instead of the incorrect "Semen." The IIHF agreed.
Now, the IIHF is making a serious push to reform the spelling and presentation of Russian player names around the hockey world -- and on Google.
Q: So what has been wrong with how the names were transcribed until 2010?
A: Simply, the English transcription didn't reflect how Russians really pronounce their names. And this is the whole point of transcription -- to write Russian names with Roman letters so it comes as close as possible to the original pronunciation.
Q: Can you give some examples of that?
A: Take a name like Fyodor. It most places it was "Fedor" which is wrong. The Pittsburgh Penguins star Malkin's first name must be spelled Yevgeni and not "Evgeni" or "Evgeny". Very few Russian first names start with an "E-sound". Two examples are Enver and Eduard. The first sound in the original spelling of Malkin's first name is Cyrillic "E", which looks like the Roman "E" but is pronounced "Ye". Thus: Yevgeni.
The IIHF added, "We are three years away from the first Olympic hockey tournaments in Russia. We felt that come Sochi 2014, the names of the hosting country should be transcribed correctly. It's long overdue already. But primarily, we wanted to get it right."
The IIHF worked together with the Slavic faculty of the University of Zurich and its professor in Russian language on standardizing names.
Apparently, the IIHF used the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship in Buffalo earlier this year, which the Russians won, to introduce a new, modified standard for the transcription of names which are originally written with the Cyrillic alphabet.
The same rule was used for players from Belarus and Kazakhstan. A different standard will be used for the Ukrainian language, according to the IIHF. Forwards Semyon Valuiski and Artyom Voronin are the two examples of the new transcription.
Here's the IIHF transcription guide (.pdf):
It is unclear at this point if the NHL will adopt the same standards, as most players are free to request the league spell their names just the way they want them to -- once again, Varlamov's case comes to mind.
The IIHF has "already contacted Google about this and hopefully also the NHL and other sports bodies will eventually adopt this standard."
If the NHL does, we may see Alexei Kovalyov and Alexander Syomin. Sergei Fyodorov will become the highest-scoring Russian born player to have ever competed in the NHL.
What would that mean for marketing? What would that mean for record books? And will the NHL appear out of step of the rest of the world spells it "Yevgeni Nabokov"?