Close-up of headphones on microphone stand in soundproof recording studio

ĀteaMay 2, 2018

A voiceover artist on being asked to deliberately mispronounce te reo

Close-up of headphones on microphone stand in soundproof recording studio

He showed up to a voice over job and was asked to mispronounce a Māori place name. Dave Ward explains why he chose to speak up instead.

Taika Waititi was right on the money. We have a race issue ​in Aotearoa ​and it’s not going away.

Last week I refused to deliberately mispronounce a Māori place name as requested by a client of a company I contract to as a commercial voice. I’m good at my job. I do it every week and over the years I’ve read thousands of scripts for thousands of satisfied customers. I wasn’t trying to be a diva or deliberately difficult, but I pride myself on the audio product I create. The requested mispronunciation of Waimate (the client wanted ‘WHY MAT EE’) ​was always going to be an aural stone in my shoe. For the first time in my career, I said no. I wasn’t the first person to refuse to do this particular script the way the client wanted it done either. I was just the first to speak out publicly about it.

For the most part, the feedback has been very supportive. But the backlash was ​vicious – and 100% Pākehā. Those who disagree with my stand generally argue that immigrants mispronounce English place names, so should that be considered racist as well? And what about Paris v Par-ee, Mexico v Me-he-co? Come on. Really?

This is not the first time I’ve found myself in trouble for refusing a deliberate mispronunciation request.

Years ago, I was living and working in Marlborough and was required to read a script that had the place name ‘Okaramio’ in it. I was instructed that it was pronounced ‘OAKA-RAMMY-O’ because ‘that’s how it’s said here’. I told them I wasn’t going to do it and received a warning from my employer for refusing a reasonable request. It’s actually “OAR-CAR-A-ME-OAR’. I know this because I rang Ngāi Tahu live on air and asked them for clarification. Another warning.

Pronunciation in New Zealand is all about respect. That’s something that is getting better, but it needs more of us on board. My wife’s name is Anona and she’s been spelling and pronouncing her name to people her entire 40 (something) years of life. People she introduces herself to listen, practise her name in front of her, get it right, and away they go. How difficult is it to apply the same courtesy to a face that is brown and a name that is Māori? A couple of extra attempts might be required, but you’ll have it correct, and the respect of the person or place who owns it.

Naming and shaming the company that requested “the ‘white’ way” achieves nothing. I’m not out to crush or tarnish their business, but I disagree with the attitude that says, ‘I don’t care how it’s supposed to be said and I’ll go with what society dictates’. If this is what society dictates, then society is wrong and needs to change.

I sympathise with the scriptwriter and NZME. Especially the writer. It was the clients request I had a problem with and in my view they’ve been put in an unfair and awkward position, and I really hope this hasn’t caused them any grief. They have a strong Māori pronunciation policy, but when the clients always right you’ve got little choice. Even when they’re wrong.

I have been in and around broadcasting, sport, and general MC work for over 18 years, and correct pronunciation is a huge part of what I do. If I get it wrong, it’s a very public error and makes people cringe,​ ​makes ​me look ignorant, embarrasses the person whose name I’ve gotten wrong or the residents of a place whose name I’ve bastardised, and generally guarantees I won’t get return business.​

Sports commentary is a massive frustration of mine too. Football seems to get the many European names right. The lads from New Plymouth are not TARRA-NACKY, Hamiltonians are not from WHY-CADDO, and TJs surname is not PERRA-NARRA​. Never has been, but these have been made normal by generations of refusal to fix it.

In my opinion, Nigel Yalden is the best commentator in the country, closely followed by Scotty Stevenson. Aside from the fact that their play-by-play call is outstanding, their pronunciation of Māori, Polynesian, African, Georgian or Japanese names, whoever they’re calling, is spot on, every time. If they don’t know how to say it, they ask someone who does. Because they have respect. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but I don’t know why there’s such a reluctance to ​actually try to get it right. Is it lazy? Is it reluctance for fear of being judged? Is it indifference? Regardless, it’s unacceptable and needs to change.

Standing up and saying something will likely cost me voice work, but so be it. I will not have my standards dictated by the highest bidder. This stance applies to general conversation too. It shouldn’t matter whether my Māori, Polynesian or any other pronunciation is being recorded or not. Have some respect and you’ll be respected for it.

It was only a few decades ago that my dad was caned for speaking Māori in school. That was the ‘white’ way. I’ll continue to have respect for others and pronounce non-English names the correct way. The right way.

Read more

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