illereyn (illereyn) wrote,
illereyn
illereyn

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Chinese in Western film


I was watching the Firefly: Serenity TV series, and got amused by the Western producer's attempt to incorporate Chinese language in this future sci-fi series (which, otherwise, is really good actually).

For background, showcase this excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

'Firefly takes place in a multi-cultural future, primarily a fusion of Occidental and Chinese cultures...Mandarin Chinese is a common second language, and characters in the show frequently use Chinese words and curses'

Ha. 

Point the first: the characters may use Chinese words and curses, but their Mandarin is so bad it took me a while to figure out it was Chinese and not some made-up-Tolkienesque-language they were speaking.  Chinese is a tonal language, peoples!  You can't pronounce it and roll it in a sentence like you would a non-tonal language.  The inflection of the voice when one is speaking a sentence is completely different.  For someone like me who actually speaks Chinese, it's actually quite funny, and I don't even speak that dialect.  What I suspect the writers have done is google a translation and stuck it in the script, without coaching the actors on the proper tones.  And they were probably patting themselves on the back for creating authentic atmosphere.  (Edit: after watching part of the 'behind the scenes', I'm impressed by their translator and the work she put in.  But Chinese in the hands of these otherwise lovely actors still sounds funny)

Point the second: You sure it's Mandarin that you're speaking?  Because, at least in the episode Out of Gas, when the lifesupport systems went down the warning message was in...Cantonese.  Since this is a rather vital audio message, you'd think it'd be in the official dialect, the only one that the characters are shown speaking?  Because it's not like the difference between American English and British English, you know, where one can generally understand the other, and the odd vocabulary difference is often more amusing (or accidentally insulting XP ) than confusing.  The whole sound of another Chinese dialect is different - to the point where people attend University courses to master another Chinese dialect.

I've noticed that elsewhere, actually.  In Kill Bill, when the Bride needs to say a few words of Chinese, she uses Mandarin, but when her Chinese teacher is scripted quite a large segment in Chinese, he speaks....you guess it: Cantonese, and quite informally too.  And somehow she understands it perfectly, but insists on using another dialect herself?  Now that is just break-my-heart rude.  Maybe she did deserve that thrashing after all, and he wasn't just a cruel old bastard. 

The use of Mandarin makes sense: it's easier to learn, and as the official dialect is the one most often taught (and thus easiest to find translations into).  But why are longer segments tending to be in Canto?  Thoughts?

Point the third: Chinese is famous for being able for using one syallable/character words, and all, but a lot of the time?  You need more than one character.  Showcase the medical wing on Firefly: it has the Chinese character for 'to heal' on it.  Granted, that would tell any Chinese reader what that place was for (and we're assuming that the characters can read and write grammatically correct Chinese, right?), but to get the meaning 'medical centre' you need a couple more characters on that door. 

Just sayin'.
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