A visitor to this blog recently commented that he found it ironic my name means “Jehovah is gracious” in Hebrew, and at the same time I had written a post criticising the Pope. Despite it sounding awesomely Biblical, I am Greek and Iōánnēs (Ιωάννης) is simply my actual given first name. In Greek it’s just as boring as its English equivalent, John. Apart from the many non-Christians named John, I’m sure there are many devout Christians called Julian and also quite a large number of people called Philip who don’t like horses so much.
It’s clear that your given name doesn’t actually make you who you are. But the question now is, why translate a first name?
The simple answer is convenience. We know that the ancient Greeks and Romans regularly adapted names to make them easier on the tongue than the native version. When the ancient Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt, he reported on the pyramid of Cheops (Χέωψ), by which name it was known for almost two and a half thousand years, until political correctness restored it to the native Egyptian version: Khufu. Likewise, the Chinese wise man Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子) was introduced to the West as Confucius. This tradition continued with modern Chinese people, who all have a western name as well. Why make life difficult for everyone and introduce yourself as Yu-Jin when you can be Eugene?
Since the imposition of Christianity, adapting foreign names really took off. Yeshua became Iesus, which became Jesus. People started naming their children after Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, martyrs’ cousins, martyrs’ cousins’ milkmen etc. The ever popular Hebrew Yohanan became Ioannes, John, Johannes, Giovanni, Jean, Juan, Ivan, among many other variations.
But translating a name is not always to your own language. Sometimes it happened the other way. Not so long ago, learned men of western Europe would Hellenise or Latinise their names. Go to old churches in Britain and you’ll find many memorial plaques like this one, of John Baxter of Idvie:
When I first came to the UK I was determined to keep the original version of my name. A couple of years later, I realised it was a daily struggle trying to get people to pronounce Ιωάννης correctly (the best I heard was “eye-oh-AY-nees”). Similarly the colloquial version Γιάννης must be either murdered and written phonetically (Yannis/Yiannis) or cause confusion with the slightly more correct transcription (Giannis). One day I had enough of all that and Anglicised all my UK records to John. Now my British passport has the English version and the Greek passport the Greek one. In an age of bureaucracy and electronic records, where our identity has been reduced to an exact-text-match in a database, it is a brave decision to have two different official first names, but I’m not giving up. I like them both: I’m John at work, I’m Iōánnēs for friends, including you dear reader.