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

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Turmbau zu Babel (Tower of Babel), 1563, oil on oak panel. Faithful photographic reproduction in the public domain courtesy Google Cultural Institute (bAGKOdJfvfAhYQ —

Urgent foreign language challenge! Your television script has a few lines — or even a few pages — of dialogue in Italian or French or Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Onondaga. Problem: Your your actor speaks English and maybe high school Spanish. So, basically just English. And no room has a writer for every language. What do you do?

Do you find a language teacher from the local college to translate the dialogue and teach your actor to speak French in a hurry? Do you call on your neighbor’s girlfriend’s grandmother from Chinatown? Do you reach out to your key grip whose paternal uncle immigrated from Sicily to Brooklyn? And do you risk having them on set to pass notes on clarity to the script supervisor or — Heaven forfend — step in to give notes?

Or do you have a Production Office PA run the lines through free online translation software? Haul in a document translation service? Ask the cashier at the nearest bodega how to say the lines in _________? <Insert the current behind-the-counter language of your corner store.>

Sure, you could do any of those things if you want to waste time and throw away money. But 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 supervise transcreation of  the dialogue into the foreign language and to coach your actors to perform in the language using the best practices phonetics has to offer. And your language consultant has to be a dialect coach. 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 down the melody, rhythm, loudness contours and patterns of vocal organ movement into terms that actors can follow. They know how to craft exercises understood by television actors, some of which 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’.) And you can’t really guess at this technical 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, anyway.” He won’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 out comes the sound. 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, awkward and resistant to direction. That creates a real problem.

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

4. Your neighbor’s girlfriend’s grandmother 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. Your dialect coach would have known that. Also, your neighbor’s girlfriend’s grandmother 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 what about the billion-plus Chinese viewers who may one day watch your show in syndication? And if you have your neighbor’s girlfriend’s grandmother on set, will she leave her cell phone on after sound is speeding, post snapshots of your closed set to Renrenwang (that’s one of China’s Facebook clones), and stand in exactly the wrong spot — always? Will she stalk your celebrities for two years after you have wrapped? Because everyone will remember who hired her. Awkward.

5. 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. Your dialect coach will get this because he or she is, at the core, a dialogue coach. After reading your script, your dialect coach will call on decades of experience sourcing and managing teams of native speakers and will know what questions to ask them so that you get back contextualized dialogue that jumps off the page in voices consistent with character, the showrunner’s writing style and with the tone of the scene. What you will not get back is a lifeless, literal translation in the style of written prose — a translation that renders ‘a beat’ as ‘a drum is struck’. And your coach will make sure you do not get back a “translation” that slows you down with push-back from your ever-vigilant standards and practices folks. But even if you happen to find a document translator who also happens to know how to read a script and polish dialogue, your coach is likely to end up asking to change the translation because some wordings may be easier to speak, remember or act. Given this, for the purposes of television writing, hiring a document translator is barely a step up from machine translation.

6. Imagine an ADR session with a native-speaker poet coaching in a language that your supervisor does not understand. Imagine trying to explain to your poet that a take may sound right to a native speaker but that the performance does not match picture. Beep, beep, beep… Your coach may involve a member of his or her language team, but will be there to keep that guide the input the language consultant gives and to keep the ADR process moving along.

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

8. Your coach will also be able to tell you whether you need a native speaker on set at all. Because sometimes just seeing a language consultant on set can put certain actors into their heads, especially if they have worked very hard just to remember the words in an unfamiliar language. An experienced dialect coach — at least one who works with languages — will know when to step in and when to leave well enough alone. Even if your coach does not speak the language, the coach will have had his or her own pronunciation checked by a native speaker and learned the lines so well that the coach an let you know whether the actor actually got out all the words before the director moves on. Because if the performance is there and the lips are moving right, sometimes it is best to leave any tweaking of pronunciation in a foreign language dialogue to ADR. But for those situations in which you really do need a native speaker’s input on the day, the coach will also have a network of native speaker consultants to reach out to for last minute script changes and to bring to set (under careful supervision of the Dialects Department). And a bona fide dialect coach will know when the native speaker’s help will actually be helpful on the day.

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