Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Quit "probably butchering" things

This is a pet peeve of mine about society in general, but it seems to appear most regularly in discussions of films. Specifically, films by foreign directors ... or non-foreign directors who have foreign-sounding names.

Namely, I hate it when people -- my film podcasters, mostly -- say they are "probably butchering" a name, right before making a suitably game effort to pronounce it correctly.

On the surface this is a laudable instinct, an attempt to be respectful and deferential to another culture. But I find there to be something insidious about it, especially in situations where the name is really not that hard to pronounce.

Take the inspiration for this post, heard on a podcast this morning that was several months old, but I'd been saving for after I'd watched the film they discussed in depth. I won't go into detail about what podcast it was, because the point here isn't to point fingers at people. It's to point fingers at a bad habit.

The podcaster said she was "probably butchering" the name Rick Famuyiwa, the director of Dope. Which was not actually the film that was being discussed, but it came up in a later segment.

Now, far be it from me to tell people which combination of consonants and vowels should give them difficulty. That's a personal thing, and that's not really my point either.

But this name, in my opinion, is not that hard to say. Famuyiwa is a Nigerian-American director, which is news to me -- not the American part, but the Nigerian part. I thought his last name had a Japanese origin, and in fact, that he was a Japanese-American. But if you break it down into syllables, it's really not that hard: Fa. Mu. Yi. Wa. Each syllable sounds the same as it looks, and saying them together is not that hard. Plus, the guy has directed five films dating back to 1999 (including one that was made after Dope), so the podcaster should have had plenty of time to familiarize herself with him. Famuyiwa has also been selected as the director of 2018's The Flash, the DC Justice League movie, so we'll certainly be hearing more about him.

But my point, again, is not to get caught up on whether "Famuyiwa" is a hard name to say or not. It's to suggest alternatives.

1) Listen to the pronunciation online. Many directors whose names are difficult to pronounce have little videos on YouTube that are solely dedicated to the correct pronunciation of their name. If not that, you should be able to find some video where someone else speaks the name in the context of an interview or some such, and you can probably safely assume they did the homework you don't want to do. Or there's also ...

2) DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Even if you can't find an audio pronunciation, you can often find a phonetic spelling. It's not that hard. Or even just ask someone you think might know.

3) Just say the name the best you can. Even if you did not get it quite right, you tried, and you didn't just treat this person as "other."

And now we're getting to my problem with this. This is a way of "othering" somebody. To say that you are "probably butchering" his/her name suggests that the name is so outlandish and so anathema to the rules of the English language that it would almost not be possible to pronounce it correctly. I suppose there is an element of self-deprecation in it, like you are hopeless with pronouncing names and this is a flaw particular to you. But especially if you are a person who otherwise does your research -- and most podcasters are -- then it makes this failure to pronounce the name correctly seem like a deviation from your own normal level of preparedness. And then makes us wonder about the reasons for that deviation, even going so far as to assume things like racism or xenophobia even if that doesn't describe you at all.

Really, it's probably the result of an over-application of political correctness. You are so petrified of possibly offending someone by saying their name incorrectly that you have to include these two words to stipulate the likelihood of a mistake and thereby relieve yourself of the moral responsibility for that mistake. I get it, and it's completely well-intentioned.

But there comes a point when you have heard the same podcaster state that they are "probably butchering" a foreign name ten times in the space of three months when it just seems like there's a better way.

Look, there are those names that beat the best of us. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (spelled that without looking it up!) goes by the nickname "Joe" specifically because he knows people won't pronounce his name correctly. Even if they make the effort to break it down by syllables, some of the syllables aren't pronounced the way you think they would be. But one of my podcasters has made the effort to learn how to say his name, and even if it doesn't actually sound like he's saying it correctly, I admire the commitment to just choosing a pronunciation and going with it, rather than making a big deal of how foreign and difficult it is every time you say it.

Butchering should be left for serial killers, dictators and working with meat.

Which reminds me, it's October, and I need to start watching more movies where people are butchering each other.

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