Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Mispronouncing Everyone's Name

A few weeks ago, I got to attend what has become my favorite weekend of the year: the annual ALTA conference, this year held in Tucson, AZ. (This should surprise no one.) I had an absolutely wonderful time! (This should also surprised no one. But if you are surprised, then welcome to this blog! Feel free to check everything out.)

One of my favorite parts has become almost too popular in recent years: the Bilingual Readings. Anyone who signs up in advance is given the chance to do a reading of whatever translations they've been working on or had published, along with a snippet of the original text. It's a really fun opportunity to hear unfamiliar languages spoken -- this year, along with my usual French, I heard Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Chinese, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Turkish.

But you read that part where I said it was almost (but only almost) too popular? So many people have started becoming so excited about these readings that they're now being double-booked. One of the things this means is that Alexis Levitin, the fearless leader/organizer of these readings for over a quarter of a century, can no longer be the emcee for every reading (as he'd like to be).

So I helped him out this year, at the "Romance and Mediterranean" session. My job was simple: introduce the readers, read their bios from the back of the program, and make some attempt at timekeeping. Turns out, I'm pretty good at that last one, but, despite years of theater experience, kind of crap at the first two.

Most of this is probably because some of my favorite translators like listing many of their authors in their bios, which I then have to read. But I found myself doing something odd. Something, for me, unexpected. I started glossing over all the author names, apologizing, even teasing the translators for having so many hard-to-pronounce names in their bios.

Now, perhaps all of this makes sense for an American who's studied French and is asked to read a Turkish name. But I've also studied Italian and Hebrew pronunciation in symphonic choirs. Why did I suddenly start giving up on those, too?

Sigh. I'm better than that.

There's also been a lot in the media recently, from academia to Tumblr, about microaggressions. (See this tool from UCLA with explanations and examples.) Plus: privilege, and biases, and safe spaces. Lots of good articles and starting points all over the place. And it got me wondering: should we translators and editors be doing more to work on this? How much harder is it for people who work in vastly international realms to figure out pronunciation rules for dozens, if not hundreds of languages? And is that any excuse?

I've been struggling with mispronouncing Malagasy names for the last two years. Yes, they're long. Yes, they have a few unfamiliar sounds in them. But shouldn't I just be working harder and practicing? Is apologizing enough?

Andriamangatiana. Jaomanoro. Rafenomanjato. I should be getting to the point where these names slide easily over my tongue.

Sigh again.

At least I've gotten to the point where I can spell them correctly on a consistent basis.