I am writing a novel in English. My transliteration novel uses -ov for surnames (Danilov, Kirilov). For consistency sake I would like to spell out Sergei Rachmaninov as such, though he is more traditionally spelled Rachmaninoff. Is the -off simply an archaic form of transliteration? I can only think of Smirnoff & Rachmaninoff as being "branded" with the suffix.

  • 1
    It's question not about Russian language but rather about the rules of transliteration in English. – shabunc May 26 '18 at 12:53

You are right, that the current style of romanization of Russian surnames is "-ov" (transliteration), while in the past it used to be "-off" (quasi-phonetic). See this paper in French (with English abstract) on the subject. Note, that until recently when Russians were issued travel documents, their names were romanized in French style, i.e. "-ow" would have been acceptable too. You could encounter funny endings like "-oukine" etc. Now they switched to Enlgish transliteration. If he were issued a passport today I bet it would have been Rakhmaninov, note kh instead of ch.


Apparently, Rachmaninov's last name is from a derivative of an old Russian word for Brahmin. So, maybe the right way to spell is actually "Rahmaninov", after all.

  • Then again, passport transliteration rules are crazy and they change them every so often. – alamar May 28 '18 at 12:03

Sergei Rachmaninov (Rachmaninoff) emigrated from Russia to the United States after the Communist revolution of 1917. He used Latin script to spell his name as "Sergei Rachmaninoff".

For example, the following books about him were published in NY:

  • Rachmaninoff’s recollections told by Oscar von Riesemann, L. — N. Y., 1934
  • Bertensson S. and Leyda J., Sergei Rachmaninoff. A lifetime in
    music, N. Y., 1956

So, the standard spelling is actually Rakhmaninov, but en.wikipedia.org and other resources prefer to use traditional spelling (Rachmaninoff).


The composer was advertised as Rachmaninoff, signed autographs as Rachmaninoff, and has Rachmaninoff on his tombstone. I think his personal preference is clear.

  • BTW, was he Sergei or Sergey there ? :-D – Arioch Jun 18 '18 at 11:39

Easy answer: -off is a French transliteration (or stylisation).

In the past (up to beginning of 20th century) French language was more popular in Russia than English. it is quite usual for old transliterations to be French.

For example, current Brazilian president's name is Dilma Rousseff. In English transliteration her father's surname would be just Rusev.

  • Any source for the claim that the double f is of French origin? – Aaron Brick Oct 8 '17 at 2:04
  • Also, French was the standard language for international diplomatic relation until WW2. Which probably projected itself into treaties about international passports. Example perhaps may be seen in surnames of passengers occupying rooms #12 till #14 in the famous lady Agatha's book: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/… – Arioch Jun 18 '18 at 11:44

I believe the -off ending (instead of -ov) came from German. The letter 'v', in German, is pronounced as 'f', so, they needed a way to represent the -ov in Russian names and they invented -off.

  • why? both -ov and -off would get pronounced via "f" sound, so I see no difference, hence no need to invent yet another way to pronounce the same :-D If anything. Germans would invent -ow. Like "Wolland" in Bulgakov's "Master and Marguerite" instead of "Volland". Like "Wotan" for Odin. – Arioch Jun 18 '18 at 11:37

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