I was interested in the process of people changing their names from one language to another. Most monarchs have a different given name in different languages. However, this phenomenon also applied to ordinary people who either moved from one country to another and had their name changed, or to ordinary people who became famous during their lives and somehow ended up with their names being translated. This practice seems to have been more common before the 20th century than it is today.

In order to reduce the scope of the question, I am excluding all transliterations from other writing systems. Names from non-Latin writing languages obviously have to be transliterated into the Latin alphabet and the rules for doing so are heavily language-dependant, so those cases are ruled out. I am also excluding monarchs and popes who had Latin-derived names that are translated by tradition.

What I am interested in is the translation of names between two languages using the Latin alphabet and for ordinary people.

Examples of ordinary people changing their names or having them changed:

  • Immanuel Kant's father changed the spelling of the Cant Scottish family he descends from. Even though he never went to France, he is known as Emmanuel Kant in France.
  • Henri Nestlé founder of the namesake company was born in Germany as Heinrich Nestle.
  • Jean Ziegler swiss writer has been born in the German-speaking part of Switzerland as Hans Ziegler.
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon french politician, descended from a Spanish Melanchón family.
  • Nicolas Sarkozy another french politician, descended from a Hungarian Sárközy family. It's not surprising the diacritics were dropped since they don't exist in french language – however, what is more interesting is that he's known in Hungary as Sarkozy and not his original Hungarian name, leading to neither the original Hungarian pronunciation, nor to the modern French pronunciation.
  • My great-great-grandparents were born in Germany and named Oskar & Johanna Heftle but were known in french speaking Switzerland as Oscar & Jeanne Heftlé, even though they still both had German citizenship when they married here.

Example of people not changing their names:

  • A good friend of mine – whose name I'll obviously not spell out here – comes from the German speaking part of Switzerland. His name is a name that has a direct French equivalent and could be easily translated, but I don't think anybody ever had that idea.

  • Many immigrants came from former Yugoslavia in the 90s, having names ending in -ic. Those should really be respelled -itch (french) or -itsch (german) for people to pronounce them correctly. However as far I know such a spelling change was never done.

I could go on like that forever, but you get the idea. Nowadays people do not change the spelling of their names when going from a country to another country using the Latin alphabet. This results in major pronunciation errors, confusion, and exclusion of people with those weird names even many generations after they fully assimilated to their new country.

My questions is:

  • Were those changes in names voluntary in the past, or where they imposed on people moving to a country speaking a foreign language?
  • At which point in history did the bureaucracy stop people from altering their names when emigrating from a country to another so that they had to keep the spelling in their original language?
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    Didn't say they are the same :) Linking it here hoping that it might help you.. Do take a look, some of the answers might be relevant to you
    – Louis Rhys
    Nov 2, 2015 at 0:06
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    But Louis XIV or Peter the Great didn't change their names, they used their name in its original form and the translation appeared when people refered to them using other languages. It is a situation quite diferent to the one you describe (someone adopting a new form of their name). Also, you asume it had to do with bureaucracy but it could be just a desire of newcomers to not "stand out", or even misspelling from an era in which you would neither know the correct spelling of your name nor have an official ID with the official spelling on it.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 2, 2015 at 1:11
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    You mix up two things: translation of names by others and changing name by the person himself. These are two unrelated topics. The first seems to be more like a grammar question.
    – Greg
    Nov 2, 2015 at 3:58
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    It hasn't stopped. I live in Thailand, being a Dutch expatriate in retirement. If I chose to become a Thai citizen, I would have to legally change my name into a Thai name.
    – Jos
    Nov 19, 2021 at 3:06

4 Answers 4


You are conflating many different things, some of which still happen regularly:

  • Transliteration is still necessary, and it happens a lot, often with differences from one country to the next (cf. Влади́мир Пу́тин/Wladimir Putin/Vladimir Putin/Vladimir Poutine)
  • Monarchs' names do get translated, at least occasionally, especially by people who care about royalty. Thus, Elizabeth II is Élisabeth II in French. But there are exceptions (I have never heard anything else than “Juan Carlos” but a comment mentioned the fact that it does get transalted in Hungarian).
  • Common people can still change names, but usually that happens when you change citizenship, not merely when you travel, which has become much more common.
  • The bureaucracy still forces people to change names all right. I know many people who are stuck with a misspelt or misinterpreted name since they applied for a passport or residence permit.
  • You did not mention this but it's not uncommon for people (from China, in particular) to pick a first name like Sarah, Michelle, etc. when they move to Europe or the US and to use it consistently instead of their birth name. Something similar also happens in large multicultural countries like Russia (cf. comment).

But remember that spelling in general (i.e. even for common nouns and other words, not only proper nouns) wasn't always standardized in the way it is today. Another related changed is that many people now know how to write and are expected to fill in forms, etc. Two centuries ago, your name was a spoken word you would tell to a clerk, now it's a written word you have to fill in everywhere. This (much broader) process would seem to readily account for the differences you noted.

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    it's not uncommon for people to pick a first name like Sarah, Michelle, etc. when they move to Europe or the US Not only when moving outside of coutry. E.g. in Russia many people of national minorities have two names, say, Tatar and Russian (national name is usually an "official" one).
    – Matt
    Nov 2, 2015 at 8:04
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    @user4419802 I didn't know that, will add it to the answer, thanks!
    – Relaxed
    Nov 2, 2015 at 8:05
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    Misspelling seems to have been common in the past, but maybe as literacy rates rise it's less common. There are claims of Ellis Island immigration officers changing the names of immigrants to the US, but this seems to be largely a myth though misspellings did happen in other ways e.g. on shipping manifests - smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/…
    – Stuart F
    Nov 23, 2018 at 10:12
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    You are missing a link for Poutine Nov 23, 2018 at 10:51
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    Juan Carlos is definitely János Károly in Hungarian: hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Feb 14, 2022 at 22:56

There is a difference between translation and transliteration. The Чайко́вский example obviously had to be transliterated, and there are different transliteration conventions in different languages.

Interestingly, the cities München, Nürnberg and Köln usually get translated, while Berlin or Hamburg don't. Does the diaeresis have anything to do with it?

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    Hamburg (Hambourg, Hamburgo, Amburgo) does too as does Frankfurt, only not in English. Berlin is usually Berlin but that's not universal (cf. Berlijn).
    – Relaxed
    Nov 2, 2015 at 7:52
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    München is "modern German". In old time it was Munichen. So it's about evolution of German language too.
    – Matt
    Nov 2, 2015 at 7:54
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    Don't laught, it took me a really long while to figure out that Cologne and Köln were the same city, I actually only figured that out recently.
    – Bregalad
    Nov 2, 2015 at 10:43
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    @Relaxed - Well, we Americans do love our Hamburgers and Frankfurters...
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 2, 2015 at 15:04
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    @o.m.: Weiß ich. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Nov 23, 2018 at 12:58

At which point in history did the bureaucracy stop people from altering their names when emigrating from a country to another so that they had to keep the spelling in their original language?

The above premise is not true or at least not true for all countries. In the US for example:

  • People with mononyms are forced to make up a "last name" even if they don't have one.
  • East Asians are forced to reverse their name order to fit the first name first, last name last order.
  • If your name has diacritics (especially ones that are unusual in the English language, such as those in Vietnamese), the system will automatically drop them, however important you think they might be.

This can all be occurring within the Latin alphabet. (I have already mentioned Viet Nam, whose script uses the Latin alphabet. Some Indonesians have mononyms and Bahaha Indonesia uses the Latin alphabet. Singapore, which has a variety of populations, uses English and thus the Latin alphabet. People from these countries who emigrate or even simply travel to the US are forced to follow the US naming format.)

I'm not sure about the situation in European countries, but I suspect similar considerations apply.

  • My son was born in the UK and as our chosen name contained a non-ASCII character, I was afraid his name would be written incorrectly on the birth certificate and then we'll have to fight bureaucracy to get the correct spelling - but to my utter surprise the clerk at the office in the small British town was able to type the correct ó character. The parents of German tennis player Marc-Kevin Goellner were not this lucky. Feb 16, 2022 at 15:34

First you should not confuse the monarchs with ordinary people. Monarchs usually called by the traditional forms of their names in many countries both then and now.

Regarding spelling of the names of common people, it depends on the language rules, I an totally sure I would change the spelling of my name when moving from Russia to another country.

  • Obviously, because it's not the same alphabet :) So this is transliteration and not really translation (although it's possible to do both). But if you'd move to another non-russian speaking cyrillic writing country, such as Bulgaria, Serbia or Mongolia, would you have to change anything ?
    – Bregalad
    Nov 2, 2015 at 10:00
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    @Bregalad "But if you'd move to another non-russian speaking cyrillic writing country, such as Bulgaria, Serbia or Mongolia, would you have to change anything?" - yes, if their reading rules are different so that my name is read differently if spelled as it is. For instance, in Ukraine I would have to change ы->и and и->i
    – Anixx
    Nov 2, 2015 at 10:09

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