They All Sound The Same To Me

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I was going to tell you about an enjoyable exchange of emails between my father-in-law Colin and the BBC World Service over the BBC’s constant mangling of Chinese names. But I can’t improve on Colin’s words (go Dad!), so I’m pasting them in mostly verbatim, with a few edits for space and clarity. Note that the BBC haven’t actually replied to Colin. They simply forwarded an internal email to him by mistake.

From Colin to the BBC:

Sent: 28 June 2008 04:59
To: World Service
Subject: Bad Pronunciation of Chinese People’s Names

Dear BBC,
This morning your sports correspondent treated us to the usual slovenly BBC pronunciation of Chinese people’s names. For Zheng Jie, the Wimbledon giant killer, who has just beaten top seed Ana Ivanovic, we had something like “Je-ang Jee” with the “Je” sounding like the French word for “I”. This is just so far off the mark one does not know where to begin to explain. But you have plenty of Chinese language staff who can. [Your correspondent] can pronounce Ana Ivanovic, so why can’t he make more effort with a Chinese person’s name? Because he does not care. Since this problem is so prevalent in the BBC World Service, I conclude that the whole of the BBC does not care either.
The only comfort I can take from all this is that at least during the Beijing Olympics (that’s Beijing not “Beige-ing”) Chinese people will not have to listen to your radio service murdering their names, because the World Service cannot be received in mainland China. And the ban should continue until you start taking the pronunciation of Chinese names seriously. Shame on you BBC, shame!

Instead of replying, the BBC clumsily forwarded this internal communication to Colin:

From: World Service []
Sent: Monday, June 30, 2008 6:32 PM
To: Colin
Subject: RE: Bad Pronunciation of Chinese People’s Names

Hi Ken.
We have a standard response which notes that where pronunciations of non-English names are particularly difficult for native English speakers, it is accepted that an approximation is used (i.e. we don’t expect presenters to learn Chinese intonation and pronunciation just for the Olympics!). And BBC World Service can be received in mainland China, contrary to what Colin says. I haven’t replied, in case you want to.

To which Colin answered:

Sent: Tuesday, July 01, 2008 11:34 AM
To: ‘World Service’
Subject: Bad Pronunciation of Chinese People’s Names

Dear Hilary & Ken,
Permit me to elaborate with an example. To your presenters Xiang, Zhang and Zang are all the same. They pronounce them “Je-ang”. But in Chinese these are three distinct sounds – quite different from each other. It would be as if Mr. Brown, Mr. Town and Mr. Down, were all called Brown – confusing to say the least. And to make matters worse the “Je” sound mentioned earlier does not exist in standard Chinese (Putonghua), which makes the “Beige-ing” persistently heard on the BBC so irritating.
To return to Zheng Jie, the tennis player briefly: the Zheng is not “Je-ang” and the Jie is not “Jee”. In Chinese pinyin “Ji” sounds like your sports presenter’s “Jee”, but Jie is distinctively different, with two vowel sounds. Ji-e.
From the tone of your email I can detect that you do not take this subject seriously. You say: “we don’t expect presenters to learn Chinese intonation and pronunciation just for the Olympics!” What about them learning how to pronounce Chinese names for all the other times during the year? China and Chinese people are constantly in the news for one reason or another. China is not some obscure backwater. It is the home to a quarter of mankind. It is the second most powerful country in the world. China will most likely top the medal board in August. We are not asking for all your staff to become instant Chinese language experts. We are just asking you to eliminate the most obvious mistakes. That is all.
You can receive the World Service on short wave on the mainland. You are right. Sometimes you can listen on the internet, but not always. It is not unusual in my experience for it to be impossible to get past the BBC World Service home page.
I only ask that you take my suggestions a bit more seriously.