Zelensky, Zelenskiy or Zelenskyy?
Behind the western media's different spellings of the Ukrainian president's name
|Emily Kohlman||Oct 3, 2019|| 3|
Welcome to the first issue of the “From Russia With Mila” newsletter, which covers Eastern Europe through the lens of journalism and the media industry.
If you’ve been alive these past couple weeks, you’ve likely heard about the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in connection to his July phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump and the whistleblower complaint about it that sparked an impeachment inquiry.
A friend reached out to ask me (since I study Russian and am no stranger to transliterations of the Cyrillic alphabet using Latin letters) why there are so many different spellings of Zelensky’s last name, so I want to parse out here what those different spellings mean and why the spelling varies so much across western English-language media outlets.
Peter Dickinson, an Atlantic Council research fellow and chief editor of Ukraine Business Magazine, wrote in a blog in June about how the spelling variations of the Ukrainian president’s name have implications for Ukraine, referring to the country’s “past five years of hybrid warfare with Russia” that have “exposed the extent of the problem surrounding Ukraine’s low international profile.”
Dickinson mentions “historic Russian domination” in the realm of transliteration from Cyrillic, which is seen not only in some spellings of Ukrainian names, but also in historically popular spellings of Ukrainian cities.
“In this context, the recent decision by the UK’s Guardian newspaper to switch from ‘Kiev’ to ‘Kyiv’ qualifies as a small but significant success in Ukraine’s struggle to assert its national identity on the global stage.”
(Speaking of “historic Russian domination,” calling the country “the Ukraine” comes from a Russian translation that has geopolitical implications, and the official country name is “Ukraine,” Wilson Center Fellow Nina Jankowicz wrote last Thursday for the Washington Post.)
The AP Stylebook announced in August the dateline spelling switch for the Ukrainian capital city:
“To many Ukrainians, the former spelling Kiev appears outdated because it is associated with a time when Ukraine was part of the Russian and Soviet states, rather than an independent country.”
Which media outlets are using which spellings?
The majority of western English-language news outlets and publications are using the more succinct “Zelensky” spelling, such as:
The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal
The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
The Associated Press
The New Yorker
The outlets using the spelling “Zelenskiy,” which is associated with the Russian transliteration (think: Kiev vs. Kyiv) of the Ukrainian president’s name, include:
Radio Free Europe
PBS (Note: “Zelenskiy” used in stories; “Zelenskyy” used in PBS NewsHour YouTube links; news about the president on the site is filed under tag “Zelensky”)
Reuters (Note: Reuters uses the dateline Kiev)
The spelling “Zelenskyy,” which is what the Ukrainian president’s official website in English has used since May, is seen less often in western media — at least as a consistent spelling (only Newsy appears to use this spelling regularly). Spelling inconsistencies within news outlets seem more likely to arise if the news is aggregated from a source using a different spelling.
The spokesperson for the president of Ukraine, Iuliia Mendel, responded to a tweet by a BBC News correspondent, who said the extra “y” may confuse the BBC’s audience. Mendel said the president’s last name in his passport is spelled with “yy.”
The spelling “Zelenskyy” is used in the White House’s transcript summary of the July call.
Thanks for delving into the transliteration world with me! Reach out with any questions or comments, and stop back for more on media and Eastern Europe.
— Мила (Mila)