"I Don't Know You English With Your Complicated Names"

Posted by Prince Gomolvilas
ON Tuesday, April 21, 2009
As you may know, my Thai name is "Khamolpat" (pronounced "KHA-MON-PAHT"). But since my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Wade, could not pronounce that, nor my nickname "Bin," she simply decided that I should be referred to as "Prince" for the rest of my life. (When strangers at parties make fun of me, I tell them "Prince" is my "slave name." That shuts them up.)

So it's a bit disconcerting to hear that three decades later this kind of shit is still going on. Surely by now you've heard about the Texas lawmaker who proposed this solution to Chinese Americans being turned away at the polls?:

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese—I understand it's a rather difficult language—do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?

No, no, I'm not making that up. You can read more about it here and even watch a video clip of the exchange on YouTube here.

All this background, though, really is just to set up the following brilliant video, a comedy sketch from the BBC show, Goodness Gracious Me. Watch:

[Thanks to Angry Asian Man for posting the video.]
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  1. Well now hold on here. After watching the video, I think this is taken a little out of context. I’m not going to deny this woman’s stodginess or lack of worldliness as to this issue, nor her racist tone, but she’s not suggesting that Asian-Americans take on a European name. She’s just asking whether it would be possible that the each individual use the same western spelling (transliteration) of their own name on all government documents (such as the issue they’re dealing with here which seems to be about the spelling of someone’s name on their driver’s license not matching the spelling on their voter registration, and thus this person is not allowed to vote when they reach the polling place). Here’s the continuation of the quote:

    “…don’t you think it would behoove you and your citizens to… uh adopt… uh a name that we could deal with more readily here, since you’re talking about… and I’m not talking about changing your name, I’m talking about the transliteration or whatever you prefer to, that you could use with us [the government].”

    Then the dude goes on to explain why it’s unreasonable to expect a consistent spelling on all the various government documents, and why polling place workers should have some latitude in interpreting the spelling of someone’s name.

    But she says right there “I’m not talking about changing your name, I’m talking about the transliteration…”


  2. Gabriel Fleming, always defending the white man (or woman). Good job.

    But, seriously, I see your point. Perhaps a tad...just a tad...out of context--you're right.

    Technically, though, "Prince" is an arguably unsuccessful transliteration of "Bin."

    The hair-splitting question, then, involves whether transliteration accurately reflects the person's "original" name or whether transliteration merely approximates the "original" name by "Americanizing" it as much as possible.

    It's the difference between the Thai "Bin" becoming the English "Bin," as opposed to the Thai "Bin" becoming the English "Ben." Subtle difference, but means a lot.

    I realize we're straying from the House testimony in question, but it is a complex issue that can't really be encapsulated in an short exchange between a legislator and her constituent.


  3. Just another small comment, but I think it's important to recognize that transliteration is not "mispronunciation," it is the very nuanced and challenging art of translating something from one alphabet into another, so that the reader of the second alphabet can pronounce the word approximately the same way as the native speaker does. "Prince," is taking a Thai sound "Bin" and turning it into an English word. This is not transliteration, and not what the Texas lady was talking about. Indeed, it is "Bin" in this example that is transliteration. "Khamolpat" is transliteration. That's what the Texas lady was talking about, keeping a consistent spelling of "Khamolpat."

    There are academic standards with transliteration going back hundreds of years, and the standards change over time as accents and language use changes. Turning "Bin" into "Ben" isn't transliteration: it's mispronunciation (or at least bad transliteration). Indeed we couldn't even have this pleasant blog exchange without transliteration, because we wouldn't be able to write "Khamolpat" without it (unless you can tell me how to switch over to the Thai alphabet here). So don't blame transliteration.

    Oh, and guess what else is bad transliteration? "Khamolpat." What the hell is that "L" doing in there? You had to re-write the damn name for us to pronounce it correctly. How did that "L" get in there anyway?

    And as to the video, amusing for sure, but this very thing happened to me many times when traveling in Asia. No one could pronounce my name "Gabriel," or even "Gabe," so people often gave me a shorthand nickname in their own language, or called me something like "Gaab." So it goes both ways; this is how it is when cultures interface. And by the way, if you have a European name and live in China you'd better transliterate your name into the Chinese alphabet. And keep it consistent on those legal documents.


  4. I'm procrastinating. Can you tell?


  5. Oh my god, get off my blog! It stinks of your farts up in here.


  6. Lori Said,

    What can I say? We're Americans. We like simple names like Bob and Tim. I wouldn't take it personal. ;)


  7. jterry Said,

    Yes, yes, yes, this whole discourse is fascinating. But, more importantly, what we have here is a photo of Prince looking like he's up to no good, at the ripe old age of 5.


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