Place names, language create problems large and small

Misunderstandings range from wrong targets hit to broadcast garbles

May 26, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON -- NATO's admission that it may have bombed a Kosovo Liberation Army base because of a spelling error illustrates the pitfalls of language in this war.

Although Western correspondents had reported for three weeks that the KLA had wrested control of the base at Kosare from the Serbs, and television crews filmed KLA fighters there last week, NATO spokesman Jamie P. Shea said the base may have been targeted because its name was misspelled and NATO planners thought the KLA held a place called Kosani.

In the same week in which this mistake occurred, Britain and Germany nearly had a serious political dispute because of a translation error.

While London was pushing for use of ground troops troops in Kosovo, the British press carried front-page reports that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in a speech in Bari, Italy, had said such an action was "unthinkable."

The press talked of a serious difference of opinion between Schroeder and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The German press carried not a word of this for, in fact, Schroeder hadn't said it.

Instead of saying "unthinkable" -- undenkbar, in German -- he said the use of ground troops for Germany was not being considered -- kommt nicht. But an Italian interpreter in Bari had mistakenly translated his comment into Italian as impensabile -- unthinkable -- and confused correspondents who did not speak German.

Beyond this, Serbian and Albanian names have been a minefield for politicians, broadcasters and the public.

One Albanian correspondent in Brussels, Belgium, regularly winces at Shea's frequent mispronunciations of Albanian names, and the NATO spokesman is little better with his Serbian. He refers to the Macedonian capital, Skopje (SCOPE-yee) as SKOP-chi.

Politicians, spokesmen and the public can be excused for getting the names wrong but not the broadcasters. Yet if the outcome of this war depended on their pronunciation of names, it would have been lost long ago.

Perhaps the three most commonly mispronounced names are Milosevic, Pristina and Rugova.

Milosevic is pronounced Miloshevich, not Milosevich, and the accent in both Pristina and Rugova should be on the first syllable, not the second (PRISH-tin-a and ROO-go-vah). Pristina is the Kosovar capital, and Ibrahim Rugova is the unofficial president of Kosovo.

State Department spokesman Jamie P. Rubin correctly named the scene of a Serbian atrocity last week in the village of Ibica, pronouncing it Ibitsa.

But at least one broadcast correspondent who attended his briefing repeatedly referred on air to Ibicha.

A problem for Western speakers is the Serbian "s" and "c."

When the language is transliterated from Cyrillic characters to Latin, Serbs use accent marks over these letters to indicate how they should be pronounced, but the marks are not used in Western newspapers, leaving readers with no knowledge of Serbian to guess.

In Albania, correspondents initially couldn't decide whether the name of the border town of Kukes should be pronounced the way it is spelled, or Kukesh.

KOO-kes is correct.

A British radio correspondent who speaks Serbian said she tried in vain to teach one of her network's stars that the "j" in Ulcinj, a coastal town, was silent, even explaining to him the reason it was on the end of the word. But he still went on the air and talked of Ool-cinge.

CNN's mispronunciation of names long predates the Kosovo war.

It has happened so consistently over so many years that one may assume CNN foreign correspondents, with a few honorable exceptions -- Christiane Amanpour, for one -- are hired because of their inability to pronounce any foreign name correctly.

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