The questions really is just that: who decides what a state or country is called in foreign languages?

As an example, the official title of Germany is "Bundesrepublik Deutschland" which is usually translated in English contexts to "Federal republic of Germany". French has it quite similar in "République fédérale d'Allemagne" and Greek (at least according to Wikipedia) calls Germany "Ομοσπονδιακή Δημοκρατία της Γερμανίας". Just comparing those I see a few differences in wording: While in German, English, and French the word "republic" appears, in Greek it's "democracy". My Greek isn't good enough but it makes me wonder if those actually mean the same. The German language just like English has both words ("Republik" and "Demokratie") after all. Also, and that's quite interesting, Germany calls itself "Deutschland", in English and Greek is "Germany"/"Germania", and in French it's "Allemagne". If one goes back a bit in time, one would have to say that those are actually different people (in German: Deutsche vs. Germanen vs. Allemannen).

Now, without going too much into this example, I think it's obvious that one word doesn't necessarily find a literal translation in every language. I would even argue that a "Bund" is not in every sense the same as a federation. But who gets to decide how a country or state is called in foreign languages? I could find a few possibilities:

  1. Every country maintains a list of its name in all possible (or necessary) languages.
  2. No-one actually decides but every government may decide on what they're calling other countries.
  3. There is a third party that maintains a binding list of all countries in all languages. (I'm sure that's true for the EU, but does maybe the UN have such a list for "the world"?)

They all have their advantages, and it might turn out not to be regulated even. But maybe it is. Do you know?

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    If you want an example of this process getting complicated, look at the recent history of Myanmar/Burma, where until recently a lot of the anglophone world continued using the colonial name to avoid recognising the government which attempted to change it.
    – origimbo
    Jul 5, 2016 at 14:09
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    I can't help but point out that he would be greeted as the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Since nearly all African states have either English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Spanish as an official language, that should not be particularly difficult ;) Also, sometimes these things get “solved” in a very ad hoc manner, as when Angela Merkel was greeted with a GDR flag somewhere in central Asia.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 5, 2016 at 17:53
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    One place where you can find the official name of a country in another language is on the plaque the country posts on its embassy wall. For example, the name the Bundesrepublik Deutschland would like to be called in French should appear on such a plaque on its embassy in France.
    – MasB
    Jul 6, 2016 at 1:12
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    See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macedonia_naming_dispute for how country A can try to change how Country B is named...
    – DJohnM
    Jul 6, 2016 at 17:42
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    In Greek "demokratia" indeed means a republic.
    – Anixx
    Jul 7, 2016 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


A country's government can insist on a specific name being used (and some countries like Côte d'Ivoire insist on their name not being translated) and other countries or international organisations will typically honor that, at least in a diplomatic context. Some countries also consistently use a specific name in (some) foreign languages in the hope of gradually influencing usage.

On the flip side, some organisations like the UN but also national geographic or statistical institute have experts or commissions that maintain some official list of countries' names. Depending on how formal they want to be, they might or might not honor the relevant government's preference or even actively resist it for political reasons (Myanmar/Burma being a somewhat well-known case).

So the UN does maintain a list (for all UN official languages) which is part of the UN Terminology Database but it's not binding in any way, even other international organisations in the UN system might use slightly different lists.

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    Pretty much everyone uses "Ivory Coast" as far as I can see, so that tactic is clearly ineffective. Jul 6, 2016 at 11:18
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    In Russian Côte d'Ivoire is always translated.
    – Anixx
    Jul 7, 2016 at 22:06
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    @PointlessSpike Iran would be a better example here. In 1935 the Persian government requested countries with which it had diplomatic relations to call Persia Iran, which is the name of the country in Persian. So that request was very effective, most people today use Iran to refer to the country rather than Persia.
    – NSNoob
    Apr 3, 2017 at 13:08
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    @Anixx, "always"? I can't even remember when I last heard "Берег Слоновой Кости" (Bereg Slonovoy Kosti), though a quick search online shows it's indeed still in use. I hearjust "Кот-д'Ивуар", that is direct transcription of Côte d'Ivoire, much more often. Jan 19, 2018 at 18:53

There are two answers which may or may not be identical. 1) A state decides how it should be called in other languages, nowadays often the UN official languages and the languages of other states with which it has a relationship. This would be the name they put on their embassy and official documents. 2) A state decides how it wishes to call another state.

There could be political, historical or cultural reasons for these being at variance.

That said, people often use common names rather than the official names, e.g. Russia instead of the Russian Federation.

  • 1
    Similarly, it was Russia even when it was the Soviet Union. This would be similar to calling the whole of the United States of America "Texas". China usually goes for preservation of sound and neutral, or noble assiations for a a country. The United States of America is rendered "The Beautiful Country" in Chinese scripts because the symbol for Beautiful sounds like the second syllable in "America". Prior to that, the US was known as "The country with the patterned flag" because they really like the flag. Presumably this was dropped because it didn't have similar sounds.
    – hszmv
    Jan 18, 2018 at 17:56
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    Texas vs. US is hardly analogous to Russia vs. USSR. Russia dominated the USSR. For instance, every leader of the USSR other than Stalin was born in Russia (and Stalin was born in Georgia, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time), while only two US presidents were born in Texas. Jan 19, 2018 at 21:40
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    @Acccumulation Brezhnev was born in what today is Ukraine.
    – user75619
    Nov 26, 2018 at 7:32

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