Get the names right

NBC's lazy approach to pronunciation isn't limited to non-American athletes. The Peacock even butchers "Beijing."

Published August 15, 2008 9:10PM (EDT)

During NBC's broadcast Thursday of the medal ceremony for American swimmer Ryan Lochte, winner of the 200-meter backstroke, Bob Costas narrated the images as Lochte and the other medalists stepped onto the stand.

"So he takes the gold, ahead of his teammate Aaron Piersol. And Arkady" -- [pause] "Vyu-chee-neen [Vyatchanin]. I'm sure I didn't get that right. I apologize to all of Arkady's countrymen. The Russian takes the bronze."

Costas had made similar comments several times during the Opening Ceremonies after he'd gamely tried to pronounce the name of some athlete with, to an American, a tough-to-pronounce name.

Don't they have a research department at NBC? How hard is it to create a pronunciation guide? It's intern work.

There are something like 11,000 athletes participating, and some fairly high percentage of those have virtually no chance of being mentioned on NBC. Then there are people like Vyatchanin. He didn't exactly come out of nowhere. He's from Russia -- a country with some history of Olympic rivalry with the United States. He swam at the 2004 Olympics and he won two gold medals at the 2006 World Championships.

It wasn't inconceivable that NBC's announcers might have to say his name. Get it right. Call the Russians. Write the names of their athletes down phonetically. Make copies. Distribute to appropriate on-air personnel. Repeat for other countries whose athletes have a decent shot at making an appearance on the network.

It seems like a no-brainer that NBC would do this for any prominent athlete in an event in which an American has a chance to medal, especially when it's in a marquee sport such as swimming.

Then again, we're talking about a network that, according to the Associated Press, has spent the entire Olympics so far mispronouncing the name of the host city. It's Bei-jing, with a "j" sound as in juice, not Bei-zhing, with a "zh" sound that, the AP points out, doesn't appear in English.

"You have to work to get it wrong," American linguistics professor S. Robert Ramsey is quoted saying.

NBC has been working overtime, with only "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams getting it right. He did his own research, the AP reports, asking around among natives of the city.

Interns, NBC. That's why they make the small bucks.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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