Unpronounceable?: Krzhizhanovsky in Anglophonia

In his review of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s (1887-1950) collection of stories, Memories of the Future (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011), Adam Thirlwell (NB: the surname is unpronounceable to a Polish-speaker with no knowledge of English to her soul) comments on the writer’s surname as ‘a comically unpronounceable Polish name.’ Well, as it stands spelled now ‘Krzhizhanovsky’ would cause any Polish native-speaker to raise an eyebrow in surprise, doubting that it is a Polish surname at all. In reality, however, the surname of Krzhizhanovsky is easier to pronounce for an English-speaker than that of the world-renowned Polish man of letters, Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), famous for his literary travel books. The latter is composed of several sounds (or more correctly, ‘phonemes’) that do not exist in English, while the actual sounds of Krzhizhanovsky’s name are no news to an English-speaker. Not that a reviewer would normally choose to open an essay by drawing the Anglophone reader’s attention to the unpronounceable character of Kapuściński’s surname, while writing on his oeuvre. (Unfortunately, but likewise, a similar question on how to pronounce Krzhizhanovsky’s surname dominated the review of his books that appeared in the 31 August 2012 issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

Sigizmund Kzhizhanovski
Sigizmund K(r)zhizhanovsky

Krzhizhanovsky, the ‘master of the crossed out,’ who is best ‘known for being unknown,’ in his English reincarnation, is a victim of double transliteration that still may condemn him to obscurity in the Anglophone world. The Polish original of his surname, Krzyżanowski (employed on the covers of the Polish translations of his books), should be pronounced as /kzhyzhanovski/. The phonetic value of [rz] and [ż] is the same /zh/, the difference in spelling being of an etymological nature. In the latter half of the 1860s, when many Polish-speaking territories (including Warsaw) were under Russian rule, an official form of Cyrillic was adopted for Polish-language school textbooks in the Russian Empire, following the failed anti-Russian uprising of 1863-64. In this scheme, the Polish letters [rz] and [ż] were rendered as [рж] and [ж] (or [rzh] and [zh] in transliteration into English) in order to preserve the aforementioned etymological difference in the Polish Cyrillic, too.

Any educated Russian-speaker knows well that in Polish loan words adopted into Russian, [rzh] and [zh] must pronounced in the same manner, as /zh/. Likewise, such an educated Russian person would not write in English Gegel’ for the German philosopher Hegel, though his name is transliterated like that into Russian (Гегель).

In accordance with the transliteration tables of the Library of Congress the Russian Cyrillic version of Krzhizhanovsky’s surname must be rendered into English as Krzhizhanovskii (Кржижановский), which is of no help, either. But, if for the sake of better clarity in English the last two [ii] could be replaced with [y] maybe it would not be too great a sin to do away with the confusing [r]. The writer’s surname, as Kzhizhanovsky, appears easier to pronounce for English-speakers. Another option would be to emulate the Polish pronunciation of his surname with a faux transliteration, yielding Kzhyzhanovski, or even to go for the Polish original of this surname, Krzyżanowski (as French publishers do, using the form ‘Sigismund Krzyzanowski’ in the French translations of his works; whereas in German editions even the Polish diacritic letter [ż] is employed). But this could be too radical, because even though of Polish extraction the writer felt himself to be a Russian (despite being born in Kiev [Kyiv], or the capital of today’s Ukraine) and after 1917 decided to become a Soviet citizen. He chose to and continued to write in Russian, despite the fact that he was hardly permitted to publish anything during his lifetime.

Last but not least, it would be a pity if the insistence on keeping his surname eccentrically spelled in English as Krzhizhanovsky would stand between his writings and Anglophone readers, condemning the author to a renewed bout of undeserved obscurity, another stint as the master of the crossed out.

(There is an interesting story behind the Polish Cyrillic. It was invented by the Russian linguist and civil servant born in Warsaw, Александр Гильфердинг [1831-72]. The origin of his name being German, he signed it in Latin characters as Alexander Hilferding. However, as in the case of Krzhizhanovsky, the official transliteration into English, results in a different form of his name, namely, Aleksandr Hil’ferding. In 1871, in St Petersburg, his Общеславянская Азбука съ приложеніемъ образцовъ Славянскихъ нарѣчій [Obshcheslavianskaia Azbuka s prilozhenem obraztsov Slavianskikh narechii, All-Slavic Alphabet with Examples of the Use of Cyrillic in Various Slavic Idioms] was published. In the work, still in print, he proposed that Cyrillic should be used for writing and printing in all the Slavic languages. At that time, St Petersburg’s official Panslavism predicted that eventually all the Slavic-speaking areas would be included within the Russian Empire. The ethnic Georgian, Ioseb ‘Stalin’ Jugashvili (იოსებ “სტალინი” ჯუღაშვილი), executed this blueprint almost in full after 1945, having secured the Soviet bloc countries for the Soviet Union.)

2012 and March 2014