Katakana Pronunciation better than English?

Posted on October 27, 2006 | evankirby

Many many moons ago, we had a "discussion" with a native speaker of English who was upset that the Japanese mangle the pronunciation of "coffee" as 「コーヒー」, among many other words. However, we pointed out that coffee isn't an English word in the first place. This source traces it from the Arabic qahwah. This is one example of a word whose pronunciation in English is at least as bad as the katakana version of that same word.
As Japanese has such a limited syllabary, it's inevitable that some words can't be faithfully transliterated into Japanese, one of the most famous being McDonalds, or マクドナルド (makudonarudo) as it's known here. However, in many cases Japanese does a much better job of keeping words imported from other languages close to the root word than English! Partly this is because those words were imported into Japanese much more recently, meaning there has been less time for the pronunciation to be corrupted. But partly it's also because effort is made to represent the sound as faithfully as possible, unlike the common habit in English of anglicizing words. This is very obvious in place names.
So, for example, the country we call Switzerland is called 「スイス」 (Suisu) in Japanese, which is much closer to the original Suisse. Likewise, the recent Steven Spielberg film about the Munich Olympics scandal was called 「ミュンヘン」 (Myunhen) in Japan. Paris becomes パリ (Pari), and Germany ドイツ (Doitsu), Italy is イタリア (Itaria) and Turkey トルコ (Toruko). Interestingly, Spain stays as スペイン (Supein), for some reason, and Sweden is スウェーデン (Sueeden) rather than Suverijji.