The Importance of Precision in Our Relations with Asia

Most Australians pay little attention to pronouncing names correctly in their relations with the peoples who live to our north. But to those people, our failure to bother to get things right is seen as indicative of a lazy attitude in general to other cultures. Near enough is good enough.

Marise Payne, our Minister for Foreign Affairs, carries herself well in that job and brings an instinctive talent for tact and diplomacy to that key portfolio. But in an interview with Leigh Sales on ABC-TV’s 7.30 Report on November 19, she mentioned that prior to the just-finished APEC Conference in Port Moresby, she had met with her counterpart Wong Yi in Beijing. The problem is that Wong is wrong. Mandarin Chinese is the national language of China and in Mandarin he’s Wang (as in the English words “lung” or “sung”). Wong is the Cantonese reading of the same name and character. To most Australians, pointing this out sounds like nitpicking. It certainly isn’t when seen from the other side.

The greatest mistake we make with China is getting the pronunciation of that country’s capital wrong. “Bei” means north and “jing” means metropolis. The “jing” is pronounced as in the English word “jingle bells”. But some linguistic virus has penetrated our Western mind and turned this into “shing”. Even when the 2008 Summer Olympics were hosted by Beijing, most foreign reporters there referred to the capital as “Beishing”. That wasn’t just wrong; it was insulting in its carelessness. The same thing happened with the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. When you’re on the ground in these countries there’s no excuse for being so slack.

There are endless examples in the international sporting arena. Japan’s top tennis player, Kei Nishikori, finds his surname pronounced as “Nishi-kore-ree”, as in “apple core”. It’s actually the same sound as in the English words “lorry” and “sorry”. But be careful in pointing this out to fellow Australians. The response is usually, “It doesn’t matter. Everybody knows who you’re talking about.” That misses the point completely.

Back in the world of politics, President Xi Jinping also finds his name put through the wringer. The correct pronunciation of Xi is the same as the English word “she”, but the contorted variations that Westerners come up with would do Houdini proud. “Jin” is the same pronunciation as “gin-and-tonic” in English. There’s something worth getting right. 

Taiwan, the island state off the coast of China, also gets mangled. It’s not “Taiwon”. “Won” is the currency unit of South Korea. The “wan” in Taiwan is the same as in “one, two, three”.

It’s all pretty simple really. Ironically, the correct pronunciation is generally easier to handle than the mistaken versions we regularly come up with.

It’s definitely worth finding out what’s right and what’s wrong around Asia. To our northern neighbours, our bothering to be correct is not only taken as a compliment; it also provides a glimpse into the mind of the Westerner involved. Precision with names suggests we pursue excellence in other things we do.

 Many Australians are offended when this subject is raised. “Yes, but look at how they mess up our names!” is a common rejoinder. True, but we’re not involved in a race to the bottom. We should aspire to be up with – if not ahead of – the game in making a positive impression.

Of course, there is often a humorous side to all this.

Many years ago, when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the premier of Queensland, he visited Tokyo on a “secret mission” with the head of his Premier’s Department. He came with a clever plan to get Australian beef into the closed Japanese market. He knew that when the United States handed back Okinawa to Japan in 1972 there was an important dispensation that the Okinawans were granted. Occupied by the US since 1945, the Okinawans had adopted many American habits. They had become big beef consumers. They also drove on the opposite side of the road to the rest of Japan, which led to chaos on the changeover day! 

Joh knew that Okinawa could import live cattle for local consumption for a period of twenty years after 1972. His plan was to send Queensland cattle in there, where they would be slaughtered, with much of the meat being quietly slipped into the beef market of metropolitan Japan. There was no way the Japanese government would agree to such a politically explosive plan, but Joh was determined to meet with the Japanese Minister for Agriculture and present his case personally. After all, they were both politicians and men of the land. This writer acted as interpreter.

The meeting was arranged and on the way to the minister’s office, Joh told me he’d like to get the man’s name right. I explained that Minister Nakagawa’s surname typically had two Chinese characters. In effect, his name meant “in the middle of the river”. Joh had a go at pronouncing Nakagawa. “Nikiguki” he said. I assumed he was joking, but after three or four more variations like “Nukioki” I realised he had no ear for the sounds of a foreign language. “Please don’t try,” I pleaded with him. “Just call him Minister in English and I’ll do the rest.” He readily agreed that was the safest way.

But when we entered the large meeting room, with lots of bureaucrats sitting in, he launched into all of the earlier variations. It seemed to go on interminably. The Japanese all looked at the floor, stone-faced. No one dared laugh. The minister asked me in Japanese what the hell this visitor was on about and I mentioned he was trying to make a gesture. The minister graciously nodded and the meeting got under way. The plan was given a definite thumbs down and a few brownie points for trying. 

On another occasion, I interpreted in Tokyo for a senior Australian official who needed to discuss a sensitive political matter in person with one of Japan’s top government figures known for his down-to-earth approach to politics. It related to a pending UN General Assembly meeting in New York in which Canberra was backing a Japanese motion. The meeting took place at about one o’clock in the morning at the figure’s private residence. When we sat down in his front parlour he was immediately friendly towards me and asked me in matey Japanese how the hell we foreigners managed to learn his ridiculously complex language. “With great difficulty,” I responded.

Halfway through the meeting, the Japanese leader made a mistake in his own language. He looked at me to check whether I’d picked it up, which by some miracle I had. I wondered if it might be appropriate to come up with a rejoinder and decided to give it a try. I opted for a well-known proverb that all North Asians use: “Even great masters sometimes make mistakes.” In Japanese, the saying is, “Saru mo ki kara ochiru”, which means, “Even monkeys sometimes fall out of trees.” 

When Japanese children study their national language they work from day-one in their own script, eventually moving on to Chinese characters. Most foreigners, however, learn by using the English alphabet. While “saru” is a monkey, there’s another similar word that starts with an “s”: “sara”, which means a dinner plate. Nerves got the better of me and I accidentally used “sara” instead of “saru”. The Japanese leader thought I’d deliberately made the mistake so as not to come across as a smart arse. “Good one! Good one!” he responded, slapping me on the shoulder. Japanese at that level are rarely if ever tactile, so I felt greatly honoured by the gesture he’d made towards me.

Anyone who’s learnt a foreign language from a vastly different culture to their own soon discovers that humour and wit oil the path better than anything else.