Wrong Flags, Unpronounceable Names, and Backwards Letters: The Olympics and Cultural Sensitivity

01/08/2012 09:13 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 10:12 BST

The Olympic Games are a strange combination of international and nationalist. They bring people together from all over the world and yet they also promote nationalist fervour and pride, further separating people and emphasising differences rather than encouraging connections across borders.

The 2012 games have scarcely begun and they've already started revealing the UK to be less respectful, careful and thoughtful towards other cultures than one would like to think.

First, there were several news stories about signs in Arabic that were badly translated or incorrectly printed. One sign apparently offered a welcome to Arabic-readers that was backwards and not written correctly (Arabic letters have to be joined together, in what we might consider cursive format, and this sign not only didn't do that but also printed the letters back-to-front).

Bad translations are a perpetual source of humour to travellers (at a restaurant in Spain recently, I was at pains to figure out what sort of dish "wedge of death with a touch of virgin" might be), but it's unfortunate that this should be a problem at the Olympics. After all, if a nation is hosting people from all over the world, the host nation has a duty to ensure that everyone understands what is going on. A good translation not only helps with that goal but also suggests that people's needs are taken seriously into consideration. It implies a level of care that might go a long way in international understanding and cooperation.

And considering the amount of money spent on the Olympics in London, it wouldn't have added much to the budget to hire translators. Translation is not a task that can be completed by relying on Google translation software or on a friend of a friend who happens to know a bit of Spanish or Chinese. Translation is a profession and must be treated as such.

Then, on the very first day of the games, the North Koreans were offended because the South Korean flag was depicted rather than their own. Again, a little more attention to detail might have been beneficial here. The two Koreas are not interchangeable and simply re-checking the flags before displaying them might have saved some trouble. Again, this has to do with professionalism and common sense.

And at the opening ceremonies, as the national teams came proudly striding out, the British commentators on the BBC made a number of jokes and comments about unpronounceable names. A flag-bearer would come out and be introduced, and the commentator might sigh and say how she or he wouldn't like to say that difficult name again. This is a theme that continued through several of the events, with commentators remarking repeatedly on how challenging foreign names are.

Surely it would have made sense to get pronunciation advice from native speakers where possible before commentating, instead of stumbling on names and then awkwardly referring to how foreign they were. Having a pronunciation guide would have helped our commentators sound more professional.

We have to remember as well that English names might prove just as challenging to, say, a Thai or Ethiopian commentator. It doesn't make us sound very culturally sensitive if we seem on the verge of mocking names from other cultures. And that's odd, considering what a melting pot the UK really is.

Since the Olympics Games provide an opportunity for international exchange, it behoves those involved to pay attention to what they are doing and to make sure that all such exchanges are as respectful and culturally sensitive as possible. The London Olympics aim to leave a legacy behind, so let's hope it's not one that suggests that the British can't handle the "foreign".