みょうじ・名前はいい, but First Last dammit!

June 29th, 2007 by Author

I react violenty when people use the family-first order in English with Japanese names. It has the same power to piss me off as “u”. Sometimes I have to put up with it, because of, well, other mitigating factors. But today I saw a comment in Jeff’s entry about the reality-based plots making a short visit to Ghibly Studios, so I went to check the author. Looks like a nice enough blog, but… the name order just overwhelms. I guess I’m not going to follow that one.

Some of adherents of this sillinesscustom say that the name is just a tag in its entirety, and thus we should not monkey with it. After all, with some cultures (such as Viet) it simply is impossible to split family from given and perform the normalization. So, the logic goes, to be consistent to the worst common denominator, we should refuse to do that for those cultures where it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, for the sake of “consistency”.

The reason the “consistency” does not work is because it’s impossible. Cultures exist which prefer their mapping to be done, for example Russians. They have given names, family names, and father’s names, with the latter often mapped to “middle name” in English. Thus, Петр Феоктистович Романов is going get angry every time he sees his Driver’s License which says “Petr Feoktistovich Romanov”. It’s not that it’s wrong, but over time it’s getting annoying. The use of middle name has certain connotations for him.

But even if English speakers tried to preserve the names outside of their cultural context by their complete sound, they could not. For example, a common Russian name “Зайцев” (e.g. the character in a movie about WWII snipers) has a sound ‘ц’, which is absent from English. When a clerk in Safeway is struggling to read the name on the receipt and Mr. Zaitsew is in a hurry, he is going to get pissed more than Mr. Romanov in the above example. The plight of Mrs. Nguyen Thu Huong is even more horrible: ‘t’ and ‘h’ are separate sounds. Not only they can’t pronounce it right, they can’t spell it using English rules, period. The Anglicized name is just a new badge invented for a person, face it.

Finally, from what I gather, Japanese are perfectly happy to have their names normalized for use in English, and perhaps even prefer it. So, as far as I am concerned, fans of consistency can stuff it.

There may be other arguments, although I don’t see them articulated.

Update: Jeff sent an e-mail to remind that he also belongs to the other side. Uh-oh. I completely missed that. If I understood him right, he explains that he has to -san people a lot at work, and that is, of course, impossible with the First-Last order.

Update: Steven asks what I would feel if I saw “Zedung Mao” in a news or historical article. Honestly, I have no idea. Obviously, I didn’t make enough disclaimers about the name morphing being culture-specific (although doings so would make the article unweildy). I have no preference about the way Chairman Mao should be identified in English; I am not Chinese; I don’t watch Chinese movies.