Transliteration matters!


In Russia, just as it is the case in many other states, the passport of Russian citizen is the main document that proves the identity of the holder all over the country. There are two types of passports, however. The “internal” passport is unconditionally delivered to every citizen that is more than 14 years old. The “external” or “international” passport which serves to identify the citizens of Russian Federation abroad is not, however, delivered automatically. One should additionally apply for it and as long the authorities are satisfied with the outcome of the internal checkups performed the international passport is delivered.

One small but important detail, however, is that the name of the passport holder in the internal passport is transcribed in Cyrillic script, which is a part of the writing system for the Russian language, the only national language officially recognized within the borders of Russia. Nevertheless, international treaties dictate that the name of the international passport holder should be transcribed in Latin script, which is most common among the European languages.

So, is there a way out?

Well, Russia is not the only country where a script different from Latin is employed. For instance, Chinese writing system is even more drastically different from Latin. However, in China the official set of transliteration rules exists called “pinyin” which allows one to transcribe Chinese words using Latin script as they are pronounced.

Every sound in Chinese language has an equivalent symbol in pinyin and therefore, for each word there is only one possible transformation from traditional or simplified Chinese into Latin. It is worth noting, however, that the inverse transformation is not unique for various reasons, but this detail is not important for the sake of the argument.

Obviously, a very same trick can be applied to the Cyrillic script. A lookup table can be created where each sound in the Russian language transcribed by a set of Cyrillic letters can be identified with an unique sequence of Latin letters. Even more so, such a table has already been created and adopted during the Soviet times as the “GOST transliteration algorithm” (GOST is the national Russian standards body, which basically carries countrywide the same functions as ISO, the International Standards Organization).

The theory meets practice

Surprisingly, however, Russian government could not care less about actually implementing a standard that it had created (or, rather, inherited from Soviets; could it be that they consider GOST transliteration rules to be tainted by communist propaganda or something along these lines?!).

Back in 2000, roughly ten years after the destruction of the USSR, when I had to obtain my first international passport, they were delivered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MID) and the transliteration was performed archaically.

That is, one could verbally express the preferences with regards to transliteration to the clerk and negotiate a compromise. If the citizen did not express any specific requests with regards to transliteration, it was to be performed by the clerk according to a vague set of rules dubbed “French” transliteration.

Later on, towards 2005, the responsibility to deliver international passports was passed on to a newly organized Federal Migration Service of the Main Office of Internal Affairs (UFMS GUVD) and the process was “streamlined”. From then on, the transliterated names were generated by the machine, however, the rules employed neither had anything to do with GOST, nor matched previously used “French” transliteration patterns.

The result, however, was claimed to be objective for which reason the citizens were denied to request any alterations. In a sense, I was lucky, because at least my last name did not change, but a very annoying extra “i” appeared in my first name (“Yuriy” instead of “Yury”).

Unfortunately, in the countries where the Latin script is in use people can not imagine that the government might change their names every once in a while, so in many cases I was refused on the grounds that the name of the recipient does not match the one in the passport. Basically, there was nothing that I could do and I just had to redo all the documents bearing my “old” name.

Where sun does not shine

Now, international passports are only valid for 5 years from the date of issue. A new law has been recently adopted which introduces so called “biometric” international passports valid for 10 years, but as usual, the implementation is lagging far behind and not only is it problematic to obtain one inside Russia, but also some consulates plainly deny such requests.

In Germany, apparently, the consulate in Berlin does handle such inquiries, but as a Russian citizen, one is not allowed to come to any Russian consulate in the foreign country of residence. One is only permitted to address to a specific consulate which is responsible for the particular area of residence, i.e. for Baden-Württenberg this would be the one in Frankfurt am Main. Of course, coincidentally, they make it very clear on their web page that they would not deliver any biometric passports yet (as of February 2011).

So, what the hell, let us go for a “normal” one and after just 3 month of waiting time it is ready to be picked up (of course, only in person)! After spending around one hour outside in the queue among angry retired immigrants I finally made it inside.

Good news is that nowadays, under the pressure from population a new service has been introduced: for a modest fee of 7.5 € you can get a stamp in your passport with your name transcribed according to the desired transliteration scheme.

Oh, wait, bummer! You can not see the passport before you request the stamp. Still, I was assuming that I need “French” transliteration, because it seemed obvious to me that they were to reissue a passport with the extra “i” I needed to get rid of. However, under the tireless lead of President Medvedev’s, apparently, the software doing the transliteration was “modernized” yet again and now, somehow, it generates names transliterated à la Française! So basically I paid for nothing…

Luckily, after some bargain the clerk agreed to cancel the stamp and make another one with my name transcribed as in the old passport, so finally I have both names on file and hopefully do not have to redo all the documents again. After all, they are all human, maybe just spoiled a little bit by the housing problem.

As a conclusion, I admit that obviously the government knows better how I would prefer to be called, but in my humble opinion just a tiny bit of consistency would definitively not hurt!