Tuesday, June 3, 2008

How do you pronounce 'sweet revenge'?

"How do you say 'Vladimir Nabokov'?" I once asked a professor of Russian literature, who wrote for my book section at the Chicago Sun-Times. (Deaf people, you know, tend to butcher unfamiliar pronunciations. We need all the help we can get if we are not to appear a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.)

"Na-BO-koff," she said. "The accent's on the second syllable, just like Rudolf Nu-REY-off. And that's "Vla-DEE-mir, not VLAD-i-mir."

Some time later I was chatting with friends, Wellesley- and Cornell-educated, when the subject of Nabokov's novels came up.

"Na-BO-koff," I said.

They snorted. "It's 'NAB-o-koff,'" they said, patting my head figuratively.

"I understand from a Russian lit expert it's 'Na-BO-koff,'" I said defensively.

"Henry, everyone knows it's 'NAB-o-koff.' Nobody will know who you're talking about."

I was outnumbered, but I know how to carry a smoldering grudge, and there are plenty of them in my mental backpack after six decades of patronization from hearing folks. Now, years later, I have my revenge in black and white from, of all places, a web site for the blind.

It's "Say How: A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures," a page on the site of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. (Can't get more authoritative than that, can you?)

And yes, there it is:

"Nabokov, Vladimir (vlä-DĒ-mir nä-BO-kôf)"


(With belated thanks to Shelf Awareness for the tip.)

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