Saturday, September 24, 2016

How the Hell Did Vladimir Nabokov Pronounce His Last Name? How the Hell Do I Pronounce Mine?

Let's start with the most essential piece of evidence. Sting, an English speaker and former English teacher, chooses to accent the first syllable of the name "Nabokov" in the Police classic DON'T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME -- just as I, an English speaker and former English teacher, choose to accent the first syllable in my own last name.

That great Eighties band, of course, played no role in my dad's decision to reclaim our family name. It had been long concealed by my grandfather, who was not eager to attract the interest of immigration officials. Back in the Twenties, when my grandfather made it to the States from Russia by creative, unorthodox means that are still unclear to me, he called himself George Mitchell, having picked that last name out of a phone book because it sounded American. He was, my father insisted, born Giorgi Toropov. The two did not get along. In 1966 or thereabouts, my father, the former George Mitchell II, rebranded himself as Yuri Toropov. He always pronounced the name "TOR-o-povv." I don't know why.

Now it's time to pose the question I have asked myself more times than I can count in my career as a writer: What Would Vlad Do?

If my father's aim was to follow the Russian tradition, it's looking like he got it wrong, or at least different, and that the family name should have been pronounced "tor-ROP-off." Oh well. This ambiguous reply from the late Master Prose Stylist, given during a 1965 interview, suggests there are at least three acceptable options.

Whew. Looks like I can stick with Sting, and my dad, when it comes time to pronounce either of our last names. (Always taking care not to do so in the same breath, though.)