Foreign language crisis? Don’t just fetch a native speaker!

Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Turmbau zu Babel (Tower of Babel), 1563, oil on oak panel. Faithful photographic reproduction in the public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Foreign language crisis! Your script has a few lines — or even a few pages — of dialogue in Italian or French or Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Onondaga (a Native American language spoken in the Finger Lakes District of New York). Problem: Your actor speaks English and maybe high school Spanish. So, basically, just English. What do you do?

Do you find a language teacher from the local college to teach your actor to speak French in a hurry? Do you ask your neighbor’s girlfriend’s mother from Chinatown to teach your actor to speak Chinese in a hurry? Do you ask your key grip whose grandparents immigrated from Sicily to Brooklyn to teach your actor to speak Italian in a hurry?

And what about the translation? Do you have someone in the Production Office run the lines through free online translation software? Do you haul in a translator from the corporate sector? Do you ask the cashier at the deli on the corner how to say the lines in _________? [Insert the current behind-the-counter language of your neighborhood deli.]

Well, I guess you could do those things if you want to waste time and throw away money. If you want to stay on schedule and not get hate mail from the [Whatever Language] Defense League, you hire a professional dialect coach to render the lines in the foreign language and to coach your actors. It has to be a dialect coach and the coach has to work with the translation. Has to. Here is why.

1. Your local college has almost certainly staffed its language faculty with literary critics and poets – native speakers or near-native speakers perhaps, but not phoneticians. They may know cultural history and semiotic analysis, but, in the US anyway, they rarely know how to teach pronunciation. Think about it. Remember your high school French teacher? Did your teacher really care that you spoke with an accent as long as you distinguished au-dessus from au-dessous? Most college language teachers care about pronunciation even less than high school teachers. In contrast, dialect coaches know how sounds are made and have techniques for charming voices out of all sorts of actors. Dialect coaches know what the different parts of the words mean so they can coach the inflection; they know how to break the melody, rhythm, loudness contours and articulation down into simple, non-technical terms that actors can follow. They know how to craft exercises understood by actors who may have very little speech training. (Let’s face it. Most of your actors did not go to Carnegie Mellon or Juilliard or Yale Drama and study phonetics or stage speech; at best they know yoga but call it ‘voice’.) You can’t really guess at this stuff.

2. Unlike the cashier at your deli, a dialect coach will know why s/he is not getting results, and shift strategies. Your deli guy? He will give up after ten minutes of frustration and say, “Oh, close enough. Foreigners can’t really pronounce my language perfectly.” They give up because they don’t know how to get results, and they don’t know how to get results because most people have no idea how to describe what happens when they speak. Most people just think about the meaning, and sound comes out. The deli cashier will use very imprecise terms to try to explain where the actor has gone wrong, which is a problem because nothing stresses out actors like confusing or inconsistent coaching. Even if the actor has a great ear and gets close, the deli cashier will invariably drill a single read and lock the actor into it – stiff and awkward. That creates a real problem. (Your dialect coach would have played with loads of unscripted material so the actor could interpret the script and follow impulses in the moment.)

3. Actors do not need a language teacher at all. They are not learning a foreign language; they are just creating the illusion that they have learned one. What they need is an illusionist. Dialect coaches are illusionists extraordinaire.

4. Your coach is likely to end up asking to change the translation anyway because some phrasings have fewer tricky sound sequences than others and may be easier to speak, remember or act. Unlike dialect coaches, translators are generally not trained as actors. Dialogue is distilled speech. Often the meaning to be rendered into the foreign language lies several levels under the words; the meaning can lie in what is not said. The dialect coach will work at a deeper level of meaning. After reading the whole script, a dialect coach will want to render the lines in a voice that is consistent with the character and the style of the writing using words that make sense in context. Even when the dialect coach has to reach out to a team of native speakers of a rare language, he will know what questions to ask them to make the lines jump off the page. If you give your script to the wrong translator, they are likely to return lifeless, literal translations in the style of written prose. And their translations will render the word ‘…beat…’ as ‘…a drum is struck…’ Most translators do not know what ‘…beat…’ means.

5. Your neighbor’s girlfriend’s mother from Chinatown speaks Toishan, a Southern dialect. She is happy to help, so when you ask, “Does she speak Chinese,?” she says, “Yes!” because, technically, she does. Unfortunately, the character (played by your second-generation Japanese-American actor who speaks no Chinese) is supposed to be from Beijing. Beijing is in the North. They speak Mandarin there. Mandarin speakers can barely make out a word of Toishan — I mean, really, barely a word of it — even though both ‘dialects’ are called ‘Chinese’. Your dialect coach would have known that. Also, your neighbor’s girlfriend’s mother only speaks kitchen Toishan, but the character is supposed to be an astrophysicist with a PhD from Qinghua University – China’s MIT – and should talk like it. Okay, you can’t tell the difference, but 1.3 billion people who watch pirated copies of your movie can. (So you get what you pay for, but still…) Also, your neighbor’s girlfriend’s mother will leave her cell phone on after sound is rolling, post snapshots of your closed set to Renrenwang (that’s one of China’s Facebook clones), and stand in exactly the wrong spot — always. She will also stalk your celebrities for two years after you have wrapped. And you hired her. Awkward.

6. Dialect coaching is a form of dialogue coaching. That means acting coaching. The coach has to know how to read a script. Does your deli cashier know an action from an objective from a story arc from…?

7. Imagine post-production with a poet coaching the dubbing in a language that your ADR supervisor does not understand. Beep, beep, beep…

8. Your key grip may speak a mean Italian, but would you ask a dialect coach to mount a dolly on set? We all handle cameras at home, after all…

But don’t we need a native speaker on set, you wonder? Actually, most of the time, no. Why? Well, your piece is not a documentary about the language; it is about acting past the accent in a way that makes the characters credible. The right professional dialect coach has probably coached the language many times before and has had whatever input s/he needs to break down the sound system and embody the language spectacularly. The coach will also have a network of native speaker consultants to reach out to for last minute script changes, and, in unusual circumstances, may even arrange to bring one to set (under careful supervision). After all, if the dialect coach can’t pull it off, neither can your actor, and the coach will have a perspective that the native speaker will lack. If you want to know what water is, as the saying goes, the last person you ask is the fish.

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