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While researching how to call a person that holds a rank at a foreign (non English speaking) military, I came to very confusing results:

Wikipedia is not consistent on the issue:

  • it sometimes gives the rank in the native language alone, as in the case for Erwin Rommel, Heinrich Himmler, Heinz Guderian, and Gerd von Rundstedt, all of whom are German, and the current Israeli Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz.

  • In other cases, it gives the rank in the native language with an equivalent rank in English, as in the case for Israel Tal who was an Israeli general.

  • And sometimes it only gives the equivalent rank, as in the case of Israeli Medal of Valor recipient Zvika Greengold and Japanese military aviator Minoru Genda.

Other sources are also confusing:

After all of this I'm left confused as I can't really see any pattern of proper use his,

  • Should the rank in the original language be used, the equivalent "English" rank be used, or a translation of the rank?

  • Is there any difference if the original language is a non-Indo-European language vs. an Indo-European language (Hebrew vs. German)?

  • In the case that an equivalent rank is used, what set of ranks is the standard (Wikipedia uses the NATO Code)?

  • Finally, since my rank is Rav Samal, should I call myself Rav samal, Sergeant First Class (the NATO corresponding rank) or Master Sergeant (the translation)?

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@mplungjan, Look on his rank in the summation of details on the top right of the page. – Ilya Melamed Feb 1 '13 at 15:25
they also use completely different templates. {{Infobox military person and {{Infobox officeholder – mplungjan Feb 1 '13 at 15:28
Context, obviously, context. Where the title in the original language is relevant and consistent with the sentence and the broader context, it is natural to use it; in all other instances, it is imperative to use equivalent English expressions so as not to tax the reader. – Kris Feb 1 '13 at 15:34
I agree. If the audience is English speaking, use the Hebrew if you want, even use the Hebrew letters, and add the English equivalent, possibly from NATO to clarify – mplungjan Feb 1 '13 at 15:35
Being the pedant that I am, I would like to point out that German is not a latin language but a germanic one. – terdon Feb 1 '13 at 18:20
up vote 10 down vote accepted

You would generally put the ranks in English when they are comparable. For example, you would write Colonel Klink rather than Oberst Klink. Using the foreign word is generally the sign of pretentious Sunday-supplement writers trying to sound worldly and “cultured”.

If you are writing a technical assessment or a military history, then you may need to be more precise, like “Grand-Admiral Von somebody (equivalent to a British rear-admiral or a U.S. Navy fleet commander)”.

If there is no comparable rank in English, as with Soviet Commissar or German Führer, then I would use the foreign rank rather than a literal translation.

There are also political considerations to consider, such as how for an Israeli audience, Führer has rather deeper meaning than simply leader.

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"führer" has deeper meanings than "leader" for most Western and European audiences, if not others. – Charles Feb 1 '13 at 21:08
@Charles - yes that was Offical EL&U British understatement – mgb Feb 1 '13 at 21:11
@Charles, and of course for number theorists. – Andrew Lazarus Feb 2 '13 at 17:31
Benny Gantz just received the legion of merit and the document (images1.ynet.co.il/PicServer3/2013/02/05/4443813/2_wa.jpg) puts his rank as Lieut. Gen. This strengthen your answer even more. – Ilya Melamed Feb 6 '13 at 21:59

Your title isn't quite the same as the body of your question: military officers are usually addressed by the simplest form of their rank, such as Colonel for a lieutenant-colonel or General for a major-general; it's a mark of respect, rather than a precise identifier.

If referring to officers in a piece of prose, context is all. A book of Rommel's letters would probably be called The Letters of General Rommel without further specification, since everyone interested knows who is referred to, and understands it covers the period before the subject was promoted to Field Marshal; but the editor might have to specify 'Lieutenant-General Rommel' when explaining why one General was giving orders to another, or even 'Brigadefuhrer Rommel (equivalent to British brigadier or American brigadier-general)' if a point of etiquette came up. Part of this is because many of the Western (not just Latin) languages use similar terms: German, English and French officers can all be generals, but the pronunciation and responsibilities are different. The differences are not, however, important unless the armies are so closely allied that a single chain of command may become necessary, which is why NATO has a set of equivalencies and other countries do not.

In your own case, you need to ask yourself 'Is the distinction between a sergeant and a master sergeant important to this person (or is the distinction in his mind important to me)?' If not (including most civilians), you can simply introduce yourself as 'Sergeant Melamed'. If so, and the person is Israeli, presumably it would be 'Rav Samal Melamed'. Otherwise, the polite way is to use the equivalent in the listener's army, but 'Sergeant First Class' is clear if you don't know how the two compare. 'Master Sergeant' is best avoided professionally (since literal translations can lead to misunderstandings), but it is used in formal contexts; as an example I happen to know, if you were a witness in a British court, the officials (with little or no military knowledge) would be careful not to refer to you merely as Sergeant but the next British rank of Sergeant-Major would be giving you a rank to which you were not entitled, so the precise translation Master Sergeant would be used.

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Finally, since my rank is Rav Samal, should I call myself Rav samal, Sergeant First Class (the NATO corresponding rank) or Master Sergeant (the translation)?

Generally, it's probably more appropriate to use "Rav samal". "Sergeant First Class" and "Master Sergeant" don't exist in all of the English speaking world. These seem to be mainly American. For example, the UK does not use them. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_and_United_States_military_ranks_compared#US_.22Enlisted.22_and_UK_.22Other.22_ranks_compared This means that there is not always, an equivalent rank to translate "Rav samal", into.

An alternative in a general sense would be to use the Ranks and insignia of NATO http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_ranks

You could use "Sergeant First Class" and "Master Sergeant" in a particular sense, if you are talking to people who are from countries that do have those ranks, such as Americans.

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