In the delicate world of diplomatic protocol, mispronouncing a foreign leader's name ranks among the worst of faux pas. But that is lost on many Americans. Who can forget Hillary Rodham Clinton's verbal gymnastics after being asked by Tim Russert to name the new president of Russia? (Most transcripts cleaned it up as "Medvedev -- whatever.") Or recall the guffawing last September after a draft of President Bush's speech before the United Nations was found that included the phonetic spellings of several names of foreign countries and leaders. Among them: Harare (hah-RAR-ray) and Mugabe (moo-GAH-bee).
At a time when the United States is trying to improve its image abroad, mangling the names of foreign dignitaries does not help. Nowhere is this issue more sensitive than at the United Nations, where diplomats view the mispronunciation of names as a subtle if passive-aggressive form of U.N. bashing. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian former secretary-general whose name launched a thousand jokes ("The man so nice they named him twice," David Letterman liked to quip), wrote in his memoir that he resented former Sen. Bob Dole's "mocking pronunciation of my name -- Boo-trus, Boo-trus --" during the 1996 presidential campaign. It "sounded like a jeering crowd," he wrote.
Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan's name also was often mispronounced. He told NPR that his surname rhymed with "cannon," but that did not stop most people from pronouncing it "uh-non." As a U.N. specialist told me, "[It's] pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, even though people think that's an American way of screwing up the pronunciation, which they assume is French-like."
And despite being U.N. secretary-general for well over a year now, Ban Ki-moon still gets addressed as Mr. Ki-moon or Mr. Moon, prompting his chief of staff to send out an e-mail in March on the correct way to refer to the South Korean diplomat. As in many East Asian languages, the U.N. chief's first name is his surname. Thus, his correct title is Secretary-General Ban, and it "is pronounced Baahn, as in 'Autobahn'."
Of course, the names of some of Ban's predecessors don't exactly skip off the tongue. Take, for example, Dag (as in "bag") Hammarskjold and U Thant ("U" is an honorific in Burmese that means "uncle" but often got confused for his first name).
Americans have always struggled with foreign names, whether they are capitals (is it KA-bul or Ka-BUL?), countries (I-Ran or ee-RON?) or leaders (MAL-iki or Ma-LI-ki?). We still call Myanmar the "country formerly known as Burma," as if Burma were Prince. Yet one no-brainer for the next president -- something that would do wonders to improve our image abroad -- is to bone up on the pronunciations of the names of heads of state. Imagine the horror when President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov of Turkmenistan comes to Washington.
At least Ban is not above poking fun at his own name. As the New York Observer reported in January 2007, he told a breakfast audience that he should have changed the English spelling of his surname -- maybe to "Bahn" or "Bon." But "since there will be so many things to ban as secretary-general, it is very relevant to my job."