Q: Where are Albania and Hungary? What's the deal with Shqipëria and Magyarszág?

A: English is the lingua franca of Internet, and luckily, it's my native language as well, but despite years of practice, my spelling is atrocious. So one day I was looking up the spelling of Czechoslovakia (Checkoslovokia?), and I discovered that the people who lived there actually called it "Ceskoslovensko", with a little doowhacker over the C that the character set of my HTML editor doesn't even have.

Then it occured to me that here I was, knocking myself out to get the spelling absolutely correct, but when you get right down to it, it really isn't the correct spelling. After all, the correct name for a place is what the people who live there call it, right?

And let's face it: Internet is an international medium and a map is a non-verbal form of communication, so why should I tie myself down to a specific language? "Poland" means nothing outside the context of English, just as "Polska" means nothing outside the context of Polish. "Polska", however, has the advantage of being accurate. Since there was a very real possibility that my maps were going to be viewed by Germans, Italians and Russians, I could either label every feature simultaneously in every known language, or I could pick the single most accurate name available. It's similar to the dilemna faced when discussing a recently married women with an old friend of hers: do you use her real (married) name for accuracy, or her original (maiden) name for clarity? I've leaned in favor of accuracy.

There are exceptions, of course. Firstly, I have always used the Roman alphabet to label the maps, regardless of how the native would write it. Let's call it a compromise to avoid having incomprehensible squiggles cluttering Asia and East Europe. Secondly, I have dropped articles where I have studied the language enough to know that this is acceptable (France is "France", not "la France"), but sometimes I haven't studied the language, so I am fumbling in the dark.

Thirdly, I haven't worked out all the bugs yet. Whenever a name falls into a lingusitic context, I panic and revert to English. The text and legend, therefore, are exclusively in English. Adjectival forms of names are also in English ("German occupied territory" for example). I haven't decided what to do with names that are descriptions rather than mere labels (4x: French West Africa, the Netherlands and Soviet Union), so sometimes I use the native name and sometimes I don't. This creates some inconsistencies and weird hybrids, for which I apologize.

Interesting article related to this problem: http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,730805,00.html