I now pronounce you...
My excellent NEPR colleague Jill Kaufman and I had the great pleasure a few weeks back of serving as readers for UMass Amherst's graduate commencement. Basically what that entailed was reading out loud, in quick succession and with minimal practice, the names of the over 1,000 recipients of advanced degrees, many of whom come from the Lands of Many Syllables. And had their parents in attendance. Do not try this at home.
Of course, we classical announcers have to wrap our tongues around some pretty fancy monikers every day. It doesn't matter if it's Jiří Bĕlohlávek or John Blow — it's our job not just to get it right, but make it sound like the easiest thing in the world, without calling attention to ourselves. Yes, we have to study the pronunciation rules of several languages, and practice the words several times before they make it into your radio. And yes, we have resources to consult when there's doubt. But there's more to it than knowing our Szell from our Szymanowski. For in addition to figuring out how something is pronounced, we have to decide how we want to pronounce it.
"Well," you might say, "you just say the name, place or title the way it would be said in the original language." Not so fast. Some pieces, for instance, are much more commonly known 'round these parts in their English translations. Others have kept their original names intact. For instance, the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote two ballets. best-known as "El amor brujo" and "The Three-Cornered Hat." Why one in English and the other in Spanish? Why not "Love, the Magician" for the first? Or "El sombrero de tres picos" for the second? Perhaps it's because one translation is more idiomatic than the other, and that "brujo" doesn't really have a good English equivalent. Or perhaps "El amor brujo," rendered in one's best Ricardo Montalbán impression, is lots of fun to say. Try it! But for whatever the reason, those are their most common names, and those are the ones we most commonly use on WFCR. Same goes with Mozart's operas, like "The Marriage of Figaro," "The Magic Flute" and..."Così fan tutte." As in most other matters of language, it's a matter of common usage, not of hard and fast rules.
And then there's the contentious matter of how close we want to come to the way a native speaker would say something, as opposed to the way the same sounds in English. More than once, we've been told "in Russian, 'Boris Godunov' would sound like (something I can't reproduce in print)" or "a native Hungarian would pronounce Szigeti and Dorati with the stress on the first syllable, so you should too." Again, not so fast. If I tried to do "Boris" the way it's said in Moskva — excuse me, Moscow, I'd probably ending up making a fool of myself, not to mention tie my tongue in knots. The opera has a perfectly acceptable English name. And yes, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Antal Dorati were natives of Hungary. But when they emigrated to the U.S., they willlingly adopted the new "American" pronunciations of their names, with accents on the second syllable. Much the same went for the pianist Rubinstein, who preferred to go by "Arthur" in the U.S., even though his manager Sol Hurok presented him as "Artur" to increase his cachet. Why should I go against these great musicians' wishes?
For here's the deal: While we have to slip in and out of many languages in the course of a day's classical show, we announce the show in English. And whether its "The Marriage of Figaro" vs. "Le nozze di Figaro," "Arthur" vs. "Artur" or "Copenhagen" vs. "København," we're going to pick the more common English version almost every time. To do so is in no way to disprespect the language from which the name comes; indeed, it's speaks to a name or place's familiarity that we've come up with our English version. It certainly doesn't bug me when our country's name gets rendered as "Die vereinigte Staten" in Berlin or "Gli Stati Uniti" in Rome. And nothing sounds more pretentious than an announcer showing off his supposed mastery of foreign names, complete with phony-baloney accent.
None of this is to excuse pronunciations that are flat-out wrong. And it also doesn't refer to way we put things in print, where we're more likely to give the original as well as English version. But next time you're tempted to call or email with a correction on pronunciation — and please do, if you think it would help — keep in mind that like so much else, it's not a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of taste and style. And on those matters, there will never be complete agreement, as I was telling Ira "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" Gershwin just the other day.
(Photos: Left, Long-time Metropolitan Opera announcer Milton Cross, who never left an "r" unrolled in his life. Right, Morning Pro Musica host Robert J. Lurtsema, who was also known to occasionally overdo things slightly. OK, more than slightly.)