Wednesday 2 November 2016

On mispronouncing authors' names

The Estonian poet and short-story writer Jaak Jõerüüt was until 2005 his country's Defence Minister, resigning voluntarily over the so-called 'T-shirt affair', a political scandal that's worth looking up when you have a moment. If you haven't read his poems or short stories it may be that, like me, you're put off by his lavishly-umlauted, unpronounceable surname - a tongue-twister, one suspects, even for his fellow Estonians. 

Jõerüüt takes the palm for mind-bending cognomens in the Anglophone world - but how about such bigger fish as Michael Houellebecq, Annie Proulx and Theodore Roethke? They are respectively and approximately Wellbeck, Prool and Rottker - at least that's how I say them, when I say them. 

These thoughts are prompted by the American independent publisher Coffee House Press, who  tweeted a link  (starts at 1:02) to a short online clip in which an engaging young American gives a no-nonsense masterclass in the correct pronunciation of such challenging names as "that guy who wrote Lolita" and Eimear ("rhymes with femur") McBride. 

The clip came to mind the other day as I browsed the contemporary fiction section in a large London bookshop. I made a note of all the authors whose surnames began with 'A" as they appeared on the first few shelves Here they are, with no exclusions: 

Kobo Abe, Kia Abdullah, Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, Leila Aboulela, Diana Abu-Jaber, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aravind Adija, Sholem Aleichem, Aynd Alethar, Turki Al-Ahmad, Isabelle Allende, Uwem Akpan, Niccolò Ammaniti, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Tashmina Nam . . .

I stopped at this point, unwilling to squat uncomfortably in pursuit of a thesis. (It's a baffling aspect of bookshops that they display so much of their stock below waist level - who knows what authors languish undisturbed down there at ankle level?) There were no Ackroyds or Ackers to be seen, but I noticed a stray Eric Ambler a few feet away. The familiar giants of the nineteenth century are shelved elsewhere as 'Classics' and various genres now have their own sections., but I expect the proportion of foreign authors would be similarly high throughout the alphabet. The astonishing range of talents to be found in my brief census - Chilean, Italian, Indian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Nigerian and Sudanese authors, some of them writing in English, others translated - is a cause for celebration. 

Consider the distinguished Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. In the 1970s he renounced English, Christianity, and the baptismal name James Ngugi as oppressively colonialist and began to write in his native Gĩkũyũ and Swahili. He's a substantial and admirable figure and in his choice of he name makes a point worth making, occupying a complete and consistent and coherent artistic and political position. But as I am quite unable to pronounce his name with confidence I hesitate to share with others - at least in conversation - my enthusiasm for a writer whose work I very much admire. I feel especially nervous about being caught out by a group of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o fans and being regarded by them as a pretentious ignoramus.

And this brings me to a shame-faced and Pooterish admission. With the exceptions of Chinua Achebe, Isabelle Allende and Niccolò Ammaniti (the last of whom I haven't read) and the two Amises, I'm not sure how to pronounce correctly any of the authors' names listed above. I can make a fair guess in most cases, of course, but am uncomfortably aware that I might well be wrong. I lack the scholarly assurance of the university lecturer who confidently and consistently pronounced Yeats to rhyme with Keats. Nobody questioned this as she was no fool and might even have been on to something. Auden, come to think of it, believed that Percy Bysshe Shelley's middle name rhymed with 'sissy' not 'fish', and he knew a lot about everything.

It's not just foreign authors' names that give me pause. What of the deceptively commonplace 'Jekyll'? Not Jekyll as in Gertrude (which as we all know rhymes with 'treacle') but as in the depraved Mr. Hyde's strait-laced alter ego. These days it's universally pronounced to rhyme with 'freckle', but I expect Robert Louis Stevenson would be taken aback.

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