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Presentation of names (DRAFT)

There are certain words that have no translations. These words are names defined as: persons, cities, places, streets, rivers, lakes etc. Names can be problematic in a pan-European context, as they can be originally in other alphabets than Latin or they can have diacritical marks unknown in other languages.

The normal way to handle names from other alphabets is to transliterate them. You see it done all the time in books without realising it. For instance when reading about Peter Tchaikovsky, you forget that he spelt his name Пётр Чайко́вский. You might be puzzled over the spelling of Tchaikovsky. Then this is because your language uses a different transliteration convention.

Visualise a website that is a database over islands in Europe. The website has a search feature. You can look up an island by name. On a mono-lingual website for an international audience using English as the navigation language the issue is simple: Just use the letters you are certain exist on all keyboards. In practice, these are the letters a to z. Therefore Îles d’Hyères becomes Iles d'Hyeres. Why remove the diacritical marks? Well, if you can’t type Î with your keyboard, you can’t find any Île. The principle is the same when transliterating from Greek. Κρήτη becomes Crete.

Some international organisations have established rules for this process:

32.5.2.1. In the case of a diacritic or other mark, the mark concerned is deleted, except that in a name published before 1985 and based upon a German word, the umlaut sign is deleted from a vowel and the letter "e" is to be inserted after that vowel (if there is any doubt that the name is based upon a German word, it is to be so treated). Examples. nuñez is corrected to nunez, and mjøberg to mjoberg, but müller (published before 1985) is corrected to mueller.

—International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)

Now we improve our imaginary website. We make it multilingual, meaning you can navigate using other languages than English. In the best case scenario, a French user will see everything in French and not suspect that the website has other languages. All the navigational elements will show correctly spelt French. If a French user navigates to a description of Ile du Levant (member of Îles d’Hyères), he will probably expect to see Île du Levant. However if he navigates to a Greek island of Κρήτη, he’ll expect to see the Greek transliterated into Crète —not Crete. If he uses the search feature, he will type Île du Levant.

We can therefore conclude that each language has its own conventions for transliterating names in other languages and alphabets, and a correct approach will be to transliterate all names into all supported languages of the website. Furthermore, rules such as those published by ICZN are only applicable to the language they are designed for.

For a dynamic website where content is created continously, this is an impossible task. Can we create some shortcuts?

Yes, we can. We can take advantage of the fact that the Latin alphabet is so dominant that it is known by everybody using Cyrillic, Greek etc. We can create a principle that says, if a name is in the same language as the user’s chosen navigation language, the name is shown as is. If it is not, then it is transliterated according to English conventions. This means the Croatian island of Čiovo will be shown as Ciovo for any other language than Croatian.

Example

How does this look like in the real world? Here is an example of a telephone list shown first in Greek, then in Bulgarian. The original names are: Иван Стоев, Стоян Благоев, Цветанка Иванова, Στέλιος Διονυσίου, Sigurður Þórðarson, Nedeljko Pavlović/Недељко Павловић, Mădălin Ţopescu and Aγγελος Διονυσίου.

Phone list with Bulgarian navigation
Име телефон Националност
Иван Стоев7360България (Bulgaria)
Стоян Благоев7291България (Bulgaria)
Цветанка Иванова7200България (Bulgaria)
Angelos Dionyssiou7300Гърция (Greece)
Madalin Topescu7240Румъния (Romania)
Nedeljko Pavlovic7152Сърбия (Serbia)
Sigurdur Thordarson7262Исландия (Iceland)
Stelios Dionyssiou7100Гърция (Greece)

Note: Serbia officially uses the Cyrillic alphabet, but in the phone list above, the Serb name is transliterated to Latin as it is not Bulgarian. It is possible to develop a rule that doesn’t transliterate between languages using the same alphabet, but is it worth the effort? Additionally, in Serbia there is a considerable (over 50%) informal use of the Latin alphabet.

Phone list with Greek navigation
Όνομα Τηλέφωνο Εθνικότητα
Aγγελος Διονυσίου7300Ελλάδα (Greece)
Στέλιος Διονυσίου7100Ελλάδα (Greece)
Ivan Stoev7360Βουλγαρία (Bulgaria)
Madalin Topescu7240Ρουμανία (Romania)
Nedeljko Pavlovic7152Σερβία (Serbia)
Sigurdur Thordarson7262Ισλανδία (Iceland)
Stoyan Blagoev7291Βουλγαρία (Bulgaria)
Tzvetanka Ivanova7200Βουλγαρία (Bulgaria)