Government renames airport after Havel, but botches translation

After three months of waiting and some sideline debates, the government has agreed to rename Prague’s international airport after the late president Václav Havel. While the Havel family and the tens of thousands who asked for the change are pleased there has finally been some progress, a new problem has arisen with the English translation of the airport’s name. Christian Falvey has this report.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Prime Minister Petr Nečas made the announcement on Wednesday, saying that the technical issues would be resolved in time for Prague Ruzyně Airport to be renamed in Václav Havel’s honour by October 5, the anniversary of the late president’s birthday when he would have turned 76. The idea was conceived by director Fero Fenič just one day after Mr Havel’s death on December 18 last year, and received some 80,000 signatures in the first month alone.

“There will be plenty of memorials to Václav Havel all over the Czech Republic, streets and squared named after him, statues of varying quality. Maybe there will even be too many. But the airport – that is the gateway to our country, and the country’s gateway to the world.”

Proponents of the name change note not only the fitting fact that Mr Havel opened Czechoslovakia to the world, but also that it was in Ruzyně prison that he lost some of his years and faced tough physical conditions. Opponents, meanwhile, have lambasted the idea of naming an airport after someone who disliked flying, and have suggesting naming a theatre after the playwright instead.

Václav HavelVáclav Havel In any case, the decision is final. The practical aspects of the renaming will involve expected costs of around four million crowns and will be paid by the airport operator, the joint-stock company Letiště Praha. The name “Praha” will remain on the building of Terminal 1 due to registration with international aviation organizations. The airport will use the English name for the most part, with the Czech “Letiště Václava Havla – Praha” to be used in press releases, on board announcements in Czech, municipal transit and general texts about the airport.

The former president’s widow Dagmar, who recently criticised the government for taking so long to make the change, shared her satisfaction with the decision.

“The name of Václav Havel is certainly nothing to be ashamed of anywhere in the world, especially not in the Czech Republic. Quite the contrary: it will be a great calling card for us. I am very happy, and I think Václav is very happy too.”

While the name of Václav Havel is nothing to be ashamed of, the government-approved translation in English, is. Local newspapers on Thursday were lucky to pre-empt foreign dailies by noting that “Prague Airport –Vaclav Havel” is at best awkward and at worst ridiculous in English. The syntax follows the Czech and recalls the clumsy translations of small businesses in the 1990s, like “Hair Salon Daisy” or “Night Club Veronika”. Should the airport management fail to hear better linguistic advice, it threatens to use “Prague Airport –Vaclav Havel” on its façade, letterheads, business cards, envelopes and website.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK What’s more, the airport language advisors made the curious decision of dropping the diacritic from the name “Václav”, perhaps assuming that to be to blame for the poor pronunciation of the easily pronounceable name [‘VA:TSLAF] in the English-speaking media, where it is often botched as “Vak-lav”, “Vok-lov” or even “Vat-slave”. The best case scenario could possibly just be “Havel International Airport”.