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.
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.
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).
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.