What's in a Name? – Internationalisation

In a previous Polandian post we looked at some of the differences in names used in Poland using male and female examples, and seeing how the diminutives worked. This time, we will try to understand how Polish names are adapted in international settings, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Anglicisation and other ‘-isations

I work in an environment where about 95% of my co-workers are Polish, but inversely we spend 95% of our time dealing with international clients – and thus for most of my colleagues, this means doing business in a foreign language, whether in English, German, French or otherwise. One point I have always noted is how quickly Poles are willing to adapt their names to a more international version. I’ve heard colleagues called Krzysztof (and Krystian) introduce themselves as Chris on a telephone call. Other colleagues called Piotr have introduced themselves as Piotr, but then quickly ‘translated’ it to Peter before continuing with the conversation. And I have one colleague called Wawrzyniec, who is known as Lawrence every time he deals with English-speaking clients (Sorry Wawrzek, I mean Lawrence, I mean Wawrzyniec… I’m not trying to make you look bad!).

“My name is Szczęsław – please call me… John”

It remember similar situations when I lived in Ireland and met and worked with Polish colleagues such as Paweł (who became Paul), Zbigniew (who became Zbiggy) and Przemysław (who became Séamus, simply for the similarity in the sound of one syllable in both names!). The whole situation reminds me of hearing stories of European emigrants fleeing to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When they arrived off the boat at Ellis Island in New York, they would be met by the immigration officer asking their name. He would invariably not understand it and would ‘translate’ it into something more manageable. Thus Jerzy Kaminski from Łódź would become George Kaminsky from the Bronx, and Pádraig O Caollain from Dublin would become Paddy Kelly from New Jersey.

Paszport proszę!

It raised the question for me though, if Polish emigrées to other countries would also ‘adapt’ their name to try to fit in? Does Marcin from Poland become Marco when he lands in Rome? Does Piotr suddenly become Pierre in Lyon or Pedro in Valencia? Does Zuzanna drop the Z’s for S’s in Stockholm to become another Susanna?

Or, is it more just a circumstance of my experiences, where most of my Polish colleagues have needed to deal with clients who have had difficulty in writing and pronouncing Andrzej, Małgorzata and Wawryniec? When I first met my colleague Wawrzek and pronounced his name correctly, he was shocked, and he said that I was the first native English speaker to be able to pronounce his name. After 4 years of adapting his name to make it easier for clients, he still has the habit of introducing himself as Lawrence.

Polonisations of Slavs

I should admit though that there is one area where I have seen this trend reversed since being in Poland. Whenever I am watching news broadcasts or sports programmes where Slavic names appear, it seems that there is no problem for Polish television to ‘translate’ them into Polish, especially names that tend to be normally written in Cyrillic, such as Russian, Belarussian and Bulgarian. Thus, I have seen Russian President Dmitry Medvedev become Dmitrij Miedwiediew and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov become Bojko Borisow. I’ve found it particularly interesting when watching a football match on Polish television and seeing the Russian footballer with Arshavin written on his jersey while the name Andriej Arszawin appears on the caption written by ther Polish TV producer.

Slawik lands

I suppose it’s only a small example, as I have seen how some other languages using Roman letters (such as German) also adapt Slavic names into their own languages. However it does show that Polonisation occurs with names as well as Polish names being Anglicised and Internationalised.

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29 thoughts on “What's in a Name? – Internationalisation

  1. zarazek says:

    Two small corrections:
    1. Paszport, proszĘ
    2. Lithuania and Latvia are not Slavonic countries. Where did you find this map? :)

    Now about names: I was shocked when an English lady almost perfectly pronounced my first name, which is Krzysztof and my surname which I’m not going to write in here but I can reveal that it has 13 letters but only 3 vowels.
    We transliterate names normally written in Cyrillic the way we do because, firstly, that’s the law and secondly, what else could we do? Use the transcription that was developed for the English language? Or maybe Finnish? :)
    Note that we not only Polonise other Slavs (that sounds really bad) but also every other nation that uses a non-Latin script.

    During my time in the UK, people called me Chris (or Krystof when they saw it written down) and I was 100% fine with it, I never expected them to know how to pronounce it in Polish. But I also noticed that some Poles, jokingly, called their British friends by the Polish equivalent of their names and then even formed diminutives (Christina -> Krystyna -> Krysia).

  2. tandrasz says:

    Sorry, but you are making an invalid point about “Polonisation of Slavs”.

    The examples of “Russian” names are English transliterations, not the actual Russian names of those people. The intent is to allow English language speakers pronounce them as close as possible to how they are pronounced in Russian.

    The Polish versions serve the same purpose, and usually a Polish speaker reading Polish transliterations of Russian names will be closer to the original, than English speaker reading English transliterations.

    Check out Дмитрий Медведев:

  3. Tralala says:


    “Note that we not only Polonise other Slavs (that sounds really bad) but also every other nation that uses a non-Latin script.”

    I don’t think we transliterate everything differently. I think it applied mostly to Slavic languages using Cyrylic. I was recently translating a book about Japan, and had to do some research on place names like Utsunomiya or Takiyacho. There are no Polish equivalents and I found some document of some Board For Foreign Names recommending using English transliterations. And do we transliterate other stuff like sushi? No.

    My quess is that we do the same for Arabic and Asian languages. I think we only do it for Slavic.

  4. zarazek says:

    You might be right about Japanese (and probably other E Asian languages as there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding transcribing those languages). However, we do transcribe Arabic languages according to our orthography (compare Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Zaid ibn Sultan an-Nahajan). The same goes for Greek, Hebrew, Indian scripts and probably a few others.

  5. Grze$ko says:

    I guess Polish people anglicise their names for two main reasons, one is pure courtesy – you don’t want to start a conversation by completely confusing your interlocutor throwing something unpronounceable at them. Especially if you are dealing with a client of some sort. Secondly there’s an inherent lack of interest in learning people’s names or even their pronunciations on the side of many English speakers.
    To a certain degree they are probably right as English is becoming the lingua franca of the world. On another hand “Andrzej, what kind of a name is that? We’ll call you Bill” is way too often the response.
    A friend of mine with a surname Martinez (hardy unpronounceable to an English speaker) cannot convince here work colleagues that the accent falls on the T. “Here we pronounce it mArtinez” – end of story.
    Same with my surname. How can I expect people who cannot (or can’t be bothered) to use a correct accent in my surname to attempt to pronounce Grzegorz.

  6. mjd says:

    I, for one, am more surprised that some English speakers are so shocked to find people translating their names. Why the surprise? I use Michał when I’m in Poland and Michael when I’m in an English speaking country because they are, in fact, the exact same name!

    Most of the time the translations have a noticeable similarity (as with my name), but sometimes not. The example you used–Wawrzyniec vs. Lawrence–is a good one: they are literal translations of one another, but sound nothing alike. Another perennial favorite is Wojciech vs. Adalbert.

  7. Maggie says:

    When, after coming to the UK, I realized my Polish name (Malgorzata) is almost impossible to pronounce for non-Polish people, I quickly became Maggie. The reason is simple: I actually like my name, I don’t like it being massacred and I’d rather be correctly pronounced Maggie than mispronounced Malgorzata.

  8. Fun post! Well, my last name is long and contains far too many consonants in a row for it to be pronounceable to most Swedish people. Usually when I have to state my name for someone to write down, I simply hand them my driver’s licence if possible, so they can copy the name instead of me spelling it. Makes things a lot easier for me.

    As for the “Z” in Zuzanna in Stockholm, I think we mostly try to stick as close to the original name as possible, but some Polish names makes it difficult of course. A Barbara/Basia would be a Barbara in Swedish, not the Swedish Barbro. A Zbyszek would be a Zbigniew, since the long version is easier to pronounce. Possibly Zigge, among friends of course.

    My parents chose a pretty international name for me, Anna. (Yes, my real name is not Basia or Barbara. :) ) However, at my mother’s funeral in Sweden, which of course was a mostly solemn event, it was actually very funny for the Swedish guests to hear the priest (who has known me since I was little) call me “dear Ania/Aniu”. They had never heard that before and I am sure they never reflected about that I could be called anything but Anna in daily talk.

  9. richardlith says:

    German, English, French and Polish (and other languages) all have different ways of transliterating the cyrillic alphabet.

    The great Tchaikovsky is Czajkowski is Polish, Tjajkovskij in Danish, Tschaikowski, in German, Chaikovski in Spanish, Tšaikovski in Estonian, Tsjaikovski in Dutch, Tchaïkovski in French, Çaykovski in Turkish, Ceaikovski in Romanian.

    The family names of the late lamented Tsars (or Czars) has been transliterated in various languages, and at different times, as Romanov, Romanoff, Roumanoff, Romanow..

    Boris Yeltsin could be Jelcin, Eltsin, Elțin , Jelzin, Jelcyn ….
    It is my personal view that it is a common courtesy for English-speakers to use the correct Polish name. The same goes the other way. However, that is an ideal target that we cannot always achieve.

    The sheer difficulty of some names (either English or Polish) for speakers of the other language means that sometimes the names are changed.

  10. richardlith says:

    Latvian and Lithuanian are not Slavic languages!!! The are Baltic.

  11. Decoy says:

    Thanks for the suggestions on corrections. I have updated ‘Proszę’.

    I have corrected the map of Slavonic lands also

  12. Decoy says:

    Apologies – map is now updated to a more accurate reflection.

  13. Name says:

    Well, even my simple, I would have thought, first name to pronounce, which is Dagmara, has been twisted so many times by the Brits that I start to find any correction pointless. They just don`t bother. Before I got married (to an Englishman) they were openly telling me “I don`t even attempt to pronounce” my last name. I`ve had this discussion about anglicising everything by the British with my hubby before, how can he possibly get it if “chleb” to him will be CZLEP and “verstehen” just literal English version. :>

  14. Outsider says:

    About Lithuanian and Latvian not being Slavic languages: they do belong to the (admittedly controversial and as yet little-researched) group of Balto-Slavic languages. That neither of those languages is remotely comprehensible to Slavs is because Slavic and Baltic languages allegedly parted company over 3,000 years ago. So the first map posted by Decoy (from wiki: [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balto-Slavic_languages/url]) was actually correct.

    As others have said, Slavic languages using the Cyrillic alphabet are transcribed into Polish in a way that gives the closest possible phonetic approximation. On the other hand, words from Slavic languages using the Latin script are not Polonised except for some very well-known proper nouns like Szwejk or Czeski Cieszyn.

    In fact, there are only two languages transcribed worldwide in a consistent manner: Chinese and Japanese. This is due to those countries having influential regulatory bodies which managed to impose a unified latinisation system decades ago (Pinyin for Chinese and Romaji for Japanese.)

    As for people Anglicizing their Polish names, there’s nothing wrong with that. I certainly would do so if I had a traditional Slavic first name. My father had his first name legally changed to a universally palatable one after years of futile attempts to convince the world it was a real name. Chinese businessmen or other people who work with foreigners also often adopt English names.

    This practice has nothing to do with being ashamed of your native culture or language. It makes conversation easier and, most importantly, it makes people focus on you as a person instead of a member of some stereotypical ethnicity. In an international work environment, a Krzysztof Kowalczyk is far more likely to be pigeonholed before he even opens his mouth than a Christopher Smith, whose name conjures nothing.

  15. Pioro says:

    How about being a Pole with the first name IAN? eeee-yan? Ok we will just call you Jan or Janek or Jas….but no I am Ian!!!!

  16. scatts says:

    You talking to me, or the other Ian, or is your name Ian?….

    They call me Jasiek, which is actually John, which is why some people call me John, which is very confusing.

    Jan is the closest but that seems like a better name for a donkey or possibly a small woodland animal than for me.


  17. ThomasM says:

    “I, for one, am more surprised that some English speakers are so shocked to find people translating their names. Why the surprise?”

    That’s an easy one. It’s because in English and other “Western” languages (German, French, probably most others), first names are usually treated as tokens of individual identity and, as such, are not “translated” as a matter of principle. To a Polish “Antek”, it may seem quite natural to refer to himself as “Tony”, but to English speakers, this seems extremely odd. A personal anecdote—once a roommate told me that “Kate” had called and left a message for me. I was totally confused, as I didn’t know any Kates, let alone one who’d ring me in Poland. It took me a while to figure out she was talking about “Kasia”… Although I’m afraid I pronounced her name like “Kasza” back then, it had never occurred to me to “translate” her name.

    Of course, the general principle of “non-translatability” of first names clashes with the fact that, unlike Spanish, Italian or German names, many Polish names are unreadable and/or unpronounceable and, as a result, unrememberable to untrained Englished speakers.
    That’s why English speakers resort may resort to “Michael”: “Michał…? WTF? OK, let’s say Michael instead.” But that’s because they simply can’t handle the original. They wouldn’t do that to Michel, Michele, Miguel, Misha and so on. To them, “Michael” isn’t a “translation” of “Michał”, it’s an act of desperation. ;)

  18. Name says:

    mjd: “Another perennial favorite is Wojciech vs. Adalbert.”

    A fine example. In fact, both names have absolutely nothing to do with each other in terms of etymology, the connection is utterly accidental. If your name is Wojciech and you’re afraid people may be unable to pronounce it, as it has two consonants not found in English, why not say “Vo-ee-tek” instead… ?

    “Wojciech Sławnikowic, późniejszy św. Wojciech, podczas bierzmowania przyjął imię swojego nauczyciela – Adalberta z Magdeburga, stąd z tym imieniem łączy się jego imię Wojciech. Nie należy jednak uważać tych imion za odpowiedniki, pomimo faktu, że w wielu językach są za takie uznawane (stąd np. mówi się, że Wojciech po węgiersku to “Béla”).”

  19. Name says:

    Another source of confusion here is that in Germanic languages (German and Danish, probably in Swedish, too), “Ania” is not considered a diminutive form of “Anna”, but an official first name in its own right.

  20. Hey, Scatts. Try Janusz instead.

    Since Brits’ve learned that we Anglicize, they can’t get over it. Even I got asked why I don’t use my real name – which I do. I’m Anna. iIn English it’s just pronounced differently.

  21. mjd says:

    So is it possible that Anglophones are more attached to their names than Poles? Perhaps they see them as somehow more definitive of their identity?

  22. Steve says:

    There is a psychological response that makes us react when we hear the name we are used to. We immediately think that someone is talking to us or about us and we divert our attention to the speaker. Polish people have introduced themselves to me with the English version of their name, but completely failed to react when I say it, so I have used the Polish version and successfully caught their attention. The use of a correct name has practical value, as well as emotional content. It is for both reasons that I always use people’s natural names when I speak to them, whether Polish or from other countries.

    I have almost always been called Steve in Poland, although it cannot be spelt properly with Polish pronunciation: Pan Steeva or Steewa being written. However, when there has been occasion to discuss why I follow the same principle with Polish people in Poland – Stefan and not Steve, the answer echoes the other answers given in the comments: “Polish pronunciation is too difficult for English speakers”. I am speaking to a Polish person in Polish in Poland, but they think I will have difficulty listening to and repeating their name. Isn’t that absurd? An Irish friend working in Poland introduced me to the idea that Catholic countries (Ireland and Poland being examples) suffer from an inferiority complex. Is it not just that English people find it difficult, but that Polish people assume their language is too difficult for foreigners to understand? If Poles think their names are difficult, try the Irish Siobhan, which is a name regularly used in England and pronounced completely different to the way it is spelt.

  23. mjd says:


    I think you may have put your finger on the answer (or next to it, at least…). I am Catholic and have been named after an Archangel. Perhaps that’s why I don’t mind being called Michał when I’m in Poland and Michael when in an English-speaking country? Both words refer to the same patron and so I view both as legitimately my own.

    I can also understand how, by contrast, someone who does not understand their name to refer to a patron may end up viewing it as a string of letters or sounds that must either be kept unaltered or otherwise risk losing their meaning.

  24. island1 says:

    Have you ever noticed that the names of British authors are always spelt in their English form in Poland (ie, they are not transcribed) except for Szekspir?

  25. Przemo says:

    Indeed, probably it’s just a result of limited popularity of British authors (writers) during the „transcribtion-era” compared to continental ones.
    The two authors whose names are fully transcribed (and who I can recall) are Beda Czcigodny (Venerable Bede) and Tomasz Morus (Thomas More), one would guess it was to do with them being prominent members of the Catholic Church and saints thereof. One may want to check on George Byron, though, not sure on that one.

  26. Dawid says:

    Poles also have their own transliteration of Chinese names – for example Chiang Kai-shek (English transliteration) is Cziang Kaj-szek. Shanghai is Szanghaj, Canton Kanton, and so on. As with all transliterations, its serves the purpose of allowing native speakers to pronounce foreing words with relative accuracy. But today the Chinese have succeeded in imposing their own transliteration and both English and Polish translitetations are becoming things of the past (like Outsider said) Only well established names have been preserved.

    As for Poles anglicizing their names, it’s a complete reversal of a one-time trend when English and other foreign names were commonly polonized. Thus George Washington was Jerzy Waszyngton and Blaise Pascal was Błażej Pascal. You can read this kind of “translations” in any pre-war Polish novels and in some post-war as well. Szekspir is one of the very few remainders of that era.

    Today there’s also a matter of pride. You are just your average bloke from a block of flats, Krzysiek or Michał, then you go abroad and suddenly you become this savvy, confident, tough Chris or Mike. These are the effects of the Hollywood-inspired conception of English-speaking countries and the West in general. And there’s the simple matter of accomodating the mythical foreigner. As a Pole going to, say, work in, say, Britain you don’t feel you’ve got the right (and the nerve!) to make people pronounce your crazy name correctly. So you settle for the easier option, although when a Brit/American/Spaniard comes to Poland, you will try hard to get his/her name right.

    So there indeed is some inferiority complex like Steve said above, but I don’t think it’s about Catholicism. Have the French ever anglicized their own names? And they are originally a highly Catholic society. To me it has more to do with the history, both Poland and Ireland being dominated by powerful neighbours. With Poland there is the added problem of WWII and communism, both of which were terrible blows to our self-confidence.

    Like I said in the other post, I’m happy with my name – it works quite well in the English-speaking environment :)

  27. Adam, Edward, Robert. There you go – christen your sons these names and they’ll not go astray in Poland nor in the English-speaking parts of the globe. Plus my son’s name – Edmund – three English kings, a saint and also the name of my [Polish] father-in-law’s brother.

    Anna, Barbara, Joanna – same applies. Any more? (Identical spellings please – my ‘Monika’ doesn’t quite cut it).

    I agree with the Michał/Michael above – I have no problem with either having had both names applied to me all my life.

  28. Sylwia says:

    It has nothing to do with any inferiority complex. It’s simply how Polish kids are taught at school. I was told that my name was Sylvie in French, and girls called Kasia were told that they were Kates in English. So people translate their names because they think it’s what they should do while speaking another language.

    The tradition of translating one’s name is a very old one, while the one to keep it unchanged is less than a century old, and originated in the US rather than in Europe. So Józef Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad, just as William Shakespeare is Szekspir in Polish. A similar example is Jerzy Waszyngton or Jerzy Byron. But then what the English did to Jan Łaski? John O’Lasco? LOL

    The list of English names translated to Polish is indeed short only because until the late 18th century not many English people were ever heard of in Poland, and even then they were known only to a very narrow group of people. For the most part English literature was read in French, if it was read at all. In such a case names were read as if they were written in French. Lovelace became Lowelas in Polish. Defoe is pronounced Defo the way the French would read it.

    The list of Polish French names is very long though, so we have Molier, Wolter and even Ruso (the French use too many letters, no?).

    On the other hand the list of English monarchs is long enough, so the English throne was occupied by people like Elżbieta, Maria, Karol, Jerzy, Wiktoria, Henryk etc.

    British towns were little known in Poland, so there’s Londyn and Edynburg, and that’s pretty much it. Compare it to Italy where nearly every small hole of a town has its Polish name.

    Latinized names is yet another matter. Poland-Lithuania was the only large European state in the Early Modern Era where Latin was an official language. A lot of literature, esp. religious and political, was produced in Latin. Polish names were also Latinized, hence Kopernik -> Copernicus, Wawrzyniec Goślicki -> Laurentius Goslicius etc. Until the 1770s, i.e. the creation of the Commission of the National Education, all education in Poland was carried in Latin, and, if one believes Defoe, even a coachman could speak some Latin in Poland.

    French-English tradition has little to do with it, simply because English _is_ French to a great degree. You have a lot of French words that you spell French and pronounce randomly. A few more names just fit the convention. ;)

  29. Cathy says:

    I would like to know if the Polish surname DATA originated in northern Italy and Polish surname DUPLAGA from France. (Du Plage ?) I know there are a lot of DATA’s that come from Piedmont region of Itala. Especially, Forno Canavese. Are these the same DATA’s from Poland and where did that name originate? Did Italians migrate to Poland or vice versa? I know a DUPLAGA whose earliest ancestor is recorded as Martinius Duplaga in 1812. Time of Napoleonic wars.

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