Doing laps in the LA Fishbowl

Tongue-twisted: An Autopsy of a Language, Butchered

Okay, this one’s gonna be hard to write.
It’s partly because I feel responsible. How could I not? I’ve done this drill many, many times; I should have known it was going to go down the way it did because it always goes down the same way and why should it be any different in this case? Maybe it was because everything was running so smoothly; maybe I was lulled by the free internet service and the nice hotel and the efficient travel coordinator. Maybe it’s because I’ve been away too long. I should have seen it coming.
But I didn’t.
I go over and over the sequence of events, but it never gets any better. Let’s break it down shall we?:
Tuesday. I get the call. I’ve got the part. I tell my agent to make sure they know I don’t speak any Chinese, because there’s a couple of sentences in there, three phrases, and I’ll need them translated. Could you ask them to get it to me as soon as possible, because I want to make sure I’m as prepared as possible and so I don’t waste anyone’s time on set. “Sure, sure,” my agent tells me, “they already know that from the audition. But I’ll tell them again anyway, because my other client, who’s going to be reading opposite you, is in the same boat. He doesn’t speak Chinese either.” Excellent. It’s taken care of.
(a side note: for the audition, my brother-in-law Tom very kindly gave me two simple sentences in Chinese to say that approximated what the lines were supposed to be. But they weren’t exact, and I thought the producers would be looking for something specific. I could have easily memorized them, since I’d spent many days with that translation. But I didn’t. Fool.)
Thursday, 3PM. I arrive in Chicago and go to the studio for a wardrobe fitting. On the way out, I ask if I can see a script. Get the pages. See my line in English, but no translation. At the hotel, I call the Assistant Production Coordinator. “Hi,” I say cheerily, “I don’t see any translation and since we’re shooting tomorrow, I’d really like to get it as soon as possible so I can be prepared as possible and so I don’t waste anyone’s time on the set.”  “Of course, of course,” she says. They’re working on that at this very moment, and she’ll get it to me as soon as it comes in.”
If you’ve ever tried to memorize a language you don’t speak, especially a tonal language like Chinese, you really need some time for the words to settle into your brain, for your cranium to pickle in it for a while, just to get it in. It’s got to set. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of gibberish words that you have no connection with and it’s crazy hard to memorize. At least it is for me. But, with only a couple of sentences, three phrases, to remember, I should be okay if I get it soon. To be able to study and then sleep on it works wonders.
Thursday, 5 PM. I get an email, finally! And it has a sound clip attachment. It’s someone going through the line one time. That’s it. There’s not one at regular speed, then one slower, then one slower still. There’s also no pin yin (phonetic translation), to let you understand what you’re hearing, let alone tone marks. 

It’s Cantonese, which I have even less familiarity with than Mandarin. A hard language. I call again. This time I get the Production Coordinator. “Uh, thanks for the sound clip, but there’s no phonetic translation, and I need to be sure that I’m saying the correct syllables. Heh heh, could I get that by any chance?”
The PC seems… a bit unconcerned. “Well, the guy who did it is gone now, and, uh… maybe we could get it off of the internet?”
I explain, with infinite patience, that that idea is not really a well-thought out one, since I need to know what this particular person has translated, not get another translation from the internet. “OK, OK,” he says. “We’ll work on it and get something to you as soon as possible.” I thank him and remind him that sooner is better than later, because, well, I want to be as prepared as possible and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time on the set.
“Sure,” he tells me, “And they’ll be a dialect guy on the set.” I murmur that perhaps that would be a little too late.
Here’s where I should have panicked, where I should have gone down to Chinatown and gotten another damned translation myself, but I didn’t. I figured, they just have to make a phone call and it’ll be all good. Meanwhile, I spend an hour listening to that clip over and over again, and write down what I think are the syllables:
Lay Why Me’em, gong bay ong tang, ung doi ing loi, wa song li, bong hai tao jzao
And I start to memorize that.
Thursday, 10 PM. I get another email. It’s a translation for my lines. One problem. IT’S IN MANDARIN.
Ring Ring. I get another APC, since the other one’s gone home. I explain the situation. “Oh, that isn’t much help, is it?” she says astutely. Only trouble is, there’s really nothing to be done at this late hour. She’ll leave a note for the people in the morning, and they’ll call me back.
Thursday, 11:30 PM. Phone rings. It’s the 2nd AD. Call time tomorrow is 6:30 PM.
A long night. Lay Why Me’em, gong bay ong tang, ung doi ing loi, wa song li, bong hai tao jzao…  I sleep with that clip on a loop.
Friday, 10:30 AM. The PC calls me. He’s got the tailor for wardrobe with him, the man who’s female employee (was that a woman’s voice?) did the audio clip. He’s going to help me with the translation. Thank the Lord. Trouble is, he doesn’t quite get what I want. First, he thinks that I’m accusing his employee of not translating the phrases right. “No, she’s saying the right words,” he tells me. Then, he thinks I want an English translation of the Chinese. I play the audio over the phone for him, and he tells me what it’s saying in English. “Thanks so much for that,” I say, again with infinite grace and patience, “but could you tell me what she’s saying, the syllables she’s saying?”
This takes some time for him to comprehend, but finally I’m able to (I think) hammer out from him what sounds are coming out of that woman’s mouth (“Is it a ‘b” or a “d”? A ‘b-b-b-b-‘ sound or a ‘d-d-d-d-d-d” sound?”). He cleans up her pronunciation. Turns out that gutteral tone that I’ve been memorizing so assiduously is really just a stumble on the speaker’s part. Oh. Here’s what I come up with this time:
Lay why mayo gong bay wo tan. Gum doy inlay, wa xiang li, bong kay toe zao.
It’s different than what I thought, not a lot, but enough to trip me up. The tailor tells me I sound like his kids trying to speak Chinese. “You have a lot of work” he tells me cheerily. Yes, I believe I do.
I’m optimistic. 8 hours. I can do it. Here’s how:
  • I write out the sentences over and over again.
  • I pretend I’m doing Pimsleur language tapes, break it down, put it back together, repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Mnemonic aids: “Okay, his line before ends with ‘justice’ so justice lays. I’m asking why, so Lay Why. Why Mayo? Mayonnaise on a gong. Lay Why Mayo Gong. Bay wo tan, I got that, I know that, and then, Gum! Like gums, and an inlay, like a tooth inlay? Gum doi inlay, the inlay needs to be washed, Wa xiang! Gum doi inlay wa xiang li! And then you need to wash a bong, and then toe zao, that’s the end. Just get to toe zao. No! Bengay! It’s Bengay for your toe! Lay why mayo gong bay wo tan. Gum doy inlay, wa xiang li, bong kay toe zao!”
  • Meditate. Practice the lines.
  • Work out, to calm the body. Practice the lines on the elliptical.
  • Have lunch. Practice during lunch.
  • Put the syllables together so that you’re memorizing less units: Lay why mayo gongbay wotan. Gumdoi inlay, waxiang li, bongay toe zao.
  • Remember that there was that study that said sleep was important in order for you to store information in your brain. Try to take nap.
  • Practice some more. Write it on pieces of paper like you’re practicing your signature.
Friday, 7 PM. Turns out I don’t have to be on set for a while, so I spend my time in the trailer, doing the Cantonese lines fast, and slow, and angrily, and calmly, and in a monotone. I think maybe it’s setting, it’s coming more easily. I must have it. I must. It set.
Friday, 9:30 PM. I get a knock on the door. It’s a PA. “Uh, did you learn your lines in Cantonese?” he asks me. I just nod and stare wildly. “Oh, man. Hmm… cause the other guy has his lines in Mandarin.” The room begins to swirl. “Maybe we can, uh, change the—“ I begin spluttering, sounds flying out of my mouth in no particular order. He leaves with assurances that it will “all work out.” Ten minutes later he’s back. The director thinks it will be fine. I’ll be speaking to the other actor in Cantonese, he’ll be speaking to me in Mandarin. OK… Syllables start swirling around my head. Breathe. Justice lay… Lay Why Me’em, gong bay ong tang, ung doi ing loi, wa song li, bong hai tao jzao.
Friday, 10 PM. On set. No Chinese dialect coach. The cast is so welcoming, the director, a very respected man I’ve listened to many times on DVD commentary tracks, is friendly and assuring and very encouraging. “I like it, I mean, these Round Eyes don’t realize how many Chinese languages there are! But I think it’s a happy accident. It’s like, he doesn’t deign to speak to you in your native tongue, but speaks his dialect. I like it!” I nod, like it makes some kind, any kind of sense. I want to confess. I want to throw myself on the mercy of the court. But I don’t. Because I got it. It’s all in there. Trust it. It’s there. Let it just come out.
First rehearsal. The Chinese lines come at the end of the scene, and the scene’s going well. The actor opposite me says “This is just a conversation about justice.” Justice. CUE LINE!
“Lay why mayo… gong bay wo tan… wo…”
Planets revolve in their orbits. Stars wheel over head.
It hasn’t set. It’s premature Jello. I reach for the pieces of syllables and they become runny in my hand, melt away. I eventually get the rest of the lines, in some fashion, and we go on. 
Break the 1st team, 2nd team in to adjust lighting. The lead actor says, “So, you speak Chinese?” I shake my head and he says, “Well, I’ve been there and that sounded good!”
Dear God. I’ve got 20 minutes. I pace in the police locker room set, go over the mnemonic aids again. Gum! How could you forget the gum! The Gum! OK, open your hands after the gong line, and then when you open your hands, you will think of gum! Hands open, gum!
Friday, 10:45 PM. We start shooting. Camera on me for the first set up, plus wide shot. I think about going very slowly, like my character is saying this deliberately and clearly… I try not to panic. I will get through…
Oh, who’s kidding who. It was mostly awful. Sometimes, it got better. Sometimes there was a semblance of flow, but even then, it wasn’t anything near approximating Cantonese. Oh, I was throwing off extra syllables everywhere, jamming them into spaces and pauses like I was trying to keep a table from wobbling. And during the worse takes, I would have these ENORMOUS spaces in between phrases, as I screwed up my face and tried acting real hard, like … these words…were so difficult… so emotional… for me…to say…
Lay why mayo… gongbay… wotan… Gum…doi inlay… waxiang li… bongay TOE ZAO!
Who knows how many words I split up? It would be like the equivalent of saying “please… put the ap… ples on… the ta….ble. I can’t look at the other actor until TOE ZAO!  because a) I’ll forget the lines even more; and b) I know he knows how utterly I am crashing and burning. I made a complete William Shatner hash out of the Cantonese language.
Now here’s the thing. We do about 5 takes; the director gives me direction on many parts of the scene, but never mentions the Chinese. The dialect coach for the British guy playing the Chicago cop comes over and thinks we speak Chinese and when disabused of that notion says, “Well, it sounded authentic. I think you really captured the tones.” The tones. There were no tones. I was lucky if there were sounds. Could it really be that none of these “Round Eyes” could really tell I was inventing a new language? And, given all that went on before, will they care? It would be great if they called us back during post-production to redub the lines, maybe do a shot of my back while I corrected my errors, but I’m not sure it really matters to them.
But it does to me. During the turnaround (to film the other actor) the director gives me a vigorous thumbs up; the assistant director comes up and says, “Good work.” Really? I don’t say anything to them about the Chinese. Should I have? I know I’m embarrassed by how I’ve mangled the language, and by any possible Cantonese viewers who will surely choke on their dinners when they hear what comes out of my mouth. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch it.
I didn’t end up wasting anyone’s time on the set. I wonder if that’s necessarily a good thing.
August 23rd, 2010 - Still Life Las Vegas


6 responses to “Tongue-twisted: An Autopsy of a Language, Butchered”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh my god – oh my god – oh my god !
    Owemahigahd – owemahigahd- owemahigahd !
    O migh guhd o- mighh- guhd o- mighguhd !
    Open eyes – open heart – open mouth & scream out:
    "oh James- I hear your pain- I know your pain – I've been your pain
    in Spanish, in Tawainese, in Vietnamese, in techno-speak-with-out-ease,
    in Chinese -Japanese – Dirty knees look at theSE……..

    Oh MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD ! ! !

    I'm so sorry not only for you but for the the state of things for all.
    You are loved my friend. Lisa Tejero

  2. Sally Nemeth says:

    Oh good lord! I bet you the director, producer, writer, showrunner et al wouldn't have given a shit if you'd just babbled nonsense, which is SO unfair and sloppy and offensive. And if, in the end, they DO find their conscience, you'll be doing ADR, and isn't that an extra payday for you?

  3. Harry says:

    good lord…the absurdity is just beyond the bounds of comprehension. and–what Sally said! ditto!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    What can I say— You made me laugh out loud, but Sweet Man, I felt your pain. We try so hard to get these things "right". Our lesson may be how to surrender to "whatever else is", in the midst.
    ox, Genevieve

  5. Doug Wood says:

    Now you know how Demi Moore feels when she's expected to speak English on camera.

  6. […] of you know have read of my last desecration of the Chinese language would think I’d have a plan down. I did, gentle reader, I did! The […]

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