What is the correct way to transcribe the name of Ukraine's president?


dr. Eugen Schochenmaier

Mondonomo, Chief Scientist

March 25, 2022, 9:39 a.m.


The BBC and AFP has his name down as 'Zelensky', the Guardian and Reuters have it as 'Zelenskiy', while Sky and Al Jazeera are calling him 'Zelenskyy'. In Ukrainian it's written: Зеленський. Such a confusion gives an insight into the complexity of the Ukrainian language, a problem exacerbated by today’s political tensions.

According to ISO 9, an international standard establishing a system for the transliteration into Latin characters of Cyrillic characters, the family name should be spelled as 'Zelenskij'. However, a Russian person bearing the same name would be given the passport for traveling abroad with the transcription as follows: 'Zelenskii'

Interestingly, the transliteration of names of individuals seems to be less of a fiery concern for linguists than the transliteration of names of cities, and less grating of a question than “Ukraine” versus “the Ukraine,” which apparently originated from the imperfect knowledge of English. The use of the definite article in English before the name Ukraine is awkward, incorrect, and superfluous.

As alluded to, Ukraine has been trying to make its mark on the world by explaining that it isn't Russian. Something that has been prominent in the last weeks is how English language media has also been adapting with the changing view of Ukraine with a key part of this being spelling. One language switch that readers may have noticed is the change of spelling from 'Kiev' to 'Kyiv', with the former being the Russian language translation of Київ. Other cities have been changed, 'Kharkov' has become 'Kharkiv' as another example.

What these changes in language represent is a fundamental shift in the way Ukraine is portrayed internationally. The spelling of the president's name changes with every news article, but the differences reflect a Ukraine seeking detachment from its past.