Unsung Heroes of the Olympics: Ted Robinson

Thumbnail image for Robinson.jpegAttentive readers could possibly have noticed my mentioning, a time or two or twenty, the tendency of NBC Olympic announcers to refer to the site of the 2008 games as Beizhing, with an artsy Frenchified zh- sound, rather than plain old "Jingle Bells"-style Beijing.

But wait! When calling yesterday's prelims, semi-finals, and finals of the men's 3-meter springboard diving, our man Ted Robinson -- that's him at right -- talked time and again about Beijing. His co-announcer, ex-diver Cynthia Potter, didn't take the hint and kept on Beizhing-ing. But we noticed here at home.

More amazing still, Robinson did a creditable job during his many references to the defending Olympic champion in this event, He Chong of China. Mr. He's family name (He, or ) is a sound that doesn't really exist in English. It's like some combo of hehh and huhh, but farther back in your throat -- as I say, for us it's not a normal sound. But there was Robinson, saying it again and again. (Cynthia Potter was going with "Hay" or "Ay," rhyming with "day.")

I am the last person in the world to be prideful about foreign pronunciation, since I sound like a Yank whatever language I am supposedly trying to speak. And I certainly am not saying that the job of an announcer in one language is to try to parrot all the sounds and names of another language. U.S viewers would rise as one in protest of any NBC newscaster who showily said "Paris" or "México" the way the locals do. But having piled on much of Team Peacock for this anomaly I wanted to note the exception.
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And, hey, maybe this all actually matters. This dispatch just in from a Sinophile reader:

THANK YOU for taking up the issue of how to pronounce "Beijing." PLEASE continue to push this: The soft "French" pronunciation is a national (USA) DISGRACE.

I am a China scholar [from an Ivy League university] who has been studying China for 50 years, with an ex-wife who was Chinese, a Mandarin teacher who was Beijingese, numerous Sinological publications, and so on. During the Beijing Olympics, I was astounded that the American networks couldn't absorb the simple fact that any northern Chinese or CORRECT standard Mandarin speakers with whom they were interacting pronounced Beijing like Jingle Bells.. Those were, after all, the BEIJING Olympics! Not getting THAT right was simply inexcusable.

I really don't know whether this ongoing linguistic atrocity reveals (1) some fatal linguistic ethnocentrism on the part of ALL Americans, or (2) some overall anxiety about confronting a "rising China," or (3) simple incompetence on the part of specific network functionaries in 2008, since perpetuated by similarly incompetent network functionaries (including sometimes on NPR!). I DO know that, in an increasingly symmetrical relationship between the USA and PRC, one country's systematically mispronouncing the name of the capital of the other -- mediated by mass media -- augurs poorly for the mispronouncing country. If the media can't adopt an attentive attitude toward THIS, toward WHAT can we count on their being attentive?    

To repeat, THANK YOU for raising this issue. Doing so challenges our media to attend to more than just issues of pronunciation.

I feel emboldened! But I may now let this go for a while.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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