When we Colombians are abroad, especially in the United States, one of the most common annoyances is to find the name of our country inexplicably misspelled: not “Colombia” but “Columbia”. Sometimes the outrage of the offended Colombians reaches biblical proportions, and the ripples of the rant make an impact even in Twitter and Facebook, where other angry Colombians share, like, repost and retweet each piece of it. Someday it could even result in demonstrations in front of the US Embassy by pissed off Colombians with pitchforks and torches demanding the head of any officer who offended their sensibility by writing “Columbia”.
Why does this happen constantly with some Americans? In my humble opinion it is not a consequence of the proverbial ignorance or lack of interest of Americans about what exists beyond their borders. They are just adapting the alien name to something closer to their experience. After all, as our national anthem reveals, “Colombia” means literally “the land of Colombo”. You might be thinking “who the hell is that Colombo?” Well, by 15th century it was usual that names were translated as they crossed borders through Europe. That’s how an Italian explorer named Cristoforo Colombo made his career in Spain as “Cristóbal Colón” and recorded in English textbooks as “Christopher Columbus”. That’s why in English it makes perfect sense to call “Columbia” a land named after Columbus.
But if we insist on using the original name instead of translations, the right thing to do would be to rename our country as “Colonbia” or “Colonia”, since we speak Spanish and should use the Spanish version of the explorer’s last name (“Colón”) instead of the Italian one (“Colombo”). Going even further, we should stop calling famous cities by the Spanish versions and adopt the original name: London for “Londres”, Firenze for “Florencia” or Marseille for “Marsella”. In fact, it is already happening with Beijing (formerly known in Spanish as “Pekín” and in English as “Peking”).
It sounds a bit like overreacting, isn’t it? It does not seem to be the case for other foreigners. For instance, when our athletes are competing in international tournaments most of us find even cute that French narrators call our country “La Colombie” or “Kolumbien” in the case of Germans, even “Korombia” by Japanese tourists having hard time pronouncing the “L”.
So, why we react so violently when Americans say “Columbia”? Here, the “Columbia” haters may have a point: no matter the pronunciation, most foreigners are aware that they are referring to a country, while Americans can mistake our point of origin for their District of Columbia (Washington D.C.).
So, next time Americans say that you come from “Columbia” do all of us a favor by smiling, correcting them politely and taking their error by what it is: not a horrible insult but an honest mistake.
Por Andrés Meza