The ‘right’ way to pronounce it

Have you ever wondered if you were pronouncing your foreign friend’s name correctly? Well, I’m guessing not – you probably have better things to do with your time, but I’m going to give you my opinions on this anyway because I foolishly slept on a Sunday afternoon and am thus in an annoyingly alert haze of ‘why did I do that’, ‘what am I going to do tomorrow’, ‘oh god I forgot to make lunch for work’, ‘what the heck is an “alert haze”‘ and, interestingly, a slight craving for some roti. Bear with me.

See, for those of you that don’t know, I am one of those foreigners with a non-English name. The romanised translation is, frankly, inaccurate, and I can assure you that no one in Australia (where I live) actually pronounces it correctly unless they speak fluent Mandarin. Now, to be fair, I care about the proper pronunciation of my name about as much as I cared when a coworker told me about the rigours they endured to obtain the missing part for their blender , or something (I wasn’t paying attention because I didn’t care). And, if I’m honest, I’m probably more likely to respond to the English pronunciation of my name than the correct Chinese way these days. But on the other hand, I was quite bemused when an exchange student with an American accent tried pronouncing my name and was laughed at by someone else for ‘saying it funny’. When I pointed out that, technically, no one in the room was actually pronouncing it ‘correctly’, all of my friends were shocked and resolved to pronounce my name correctly for all of fifteen minutes before, I dunno, we got drunk or something. Memories from the beginnings of semesters at uni are a bit hazy for me.

It did, however, get me thinking about this. What is the correct way of translating a name? Unlike other words, many names cannot be translated across languages directly. Of course, most people try to make a carbon copy of a name in their own language, but practically, the pronunciation is probably going to be a bit off, like Hank Yoo trying to fit in with the white supremacists – I mean, you’re close, but you’re not really there. Listening to anyone who uses English as a second language would tell you that there are fundamental differences in pronunciation between languages that take years to overcome, so it really isn’t that surprising. Of course, so long as you try, you’ve, well, tried (I’m on a roll tonight), so no one can hold it against you if you end up getting it wrong. I certainly wouldn’t, and this isn’t really the thing I have an issue with.

What I do have an issue with, though, is instances like the one I described earlier, where an English speaker (or any language really) has such little awareness to the point they actually try to lecture other people on the pronunciation of a name from a language they don’t speak. Their pronunciation being ‘closer’ to the real one isn’t a good enough reason. A copy of the Mona Lisa with a frown is ‘closer’ to the original than a copy with two heads but that doesn’t make it accurate, and Mr Frown sure as heck doesn’t have any right to tell anyone else what they’re doing wrong. And this happens quite a lot. I’ve had people literally try to tell me how to pronounce Szechuan and feng shui, the absurdity of which I’m sure you’d immediately understand, but there are also less obvious examples, like correcting others on the pronunciation of French names such as Gare du Nord. Now, I’m sorry, do you speak French to the level that Parisians can’t tell the difference between you and a local? And if not, how are you managing to feel smug about French pronunciation?

To be honest, I just find a coworker annoying because they do this all the time. You just read four paragraphs of me venting about them. On the plus side though, I’m pretty sleepy now. Ergh, what am I going to do for lunch tomorrow?

-Z

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