Lost in Translation: Killing In Beijing

A privilege I have enjoyed now over several decades is to travel the world lecturing, teaching master classes, and consulting on film and screenwriting issues to international audiences. I’ve taught and advised and counseled writers and producers and studio executives and national film development corporation officials all across North America and also in London, Paris, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Jerusalem, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing among other cities.

My first such journey was to China in 1987. Along with distinguished film artists/scholars/educators from three other universities, I was treated like a rock star, enjoying upscale lodging and kiss-ass service provided by layers of handlers, interpreters, drivers, facilitators, assistants, interns, and more.

My late father, a musician of international repute and legendary music teacher, also performed and lectured throughout the world.

He told me that when he walked out on the stage at the conservatory where a particular presentation took placein Shanghai, his interpreter advised him, “You speak for a while, and then I will translate, presenting to the audience the gist of what you have said.”

Dad was a serious musician but also, in the closet, something of a standup comedian. He opened his Shanghai presentation with a long story that demonstrated a particular musical principle, but it was also a joke. It took him some several minutes to get through it. Then he stepped back, gesturing to the interpreter to proceed with the translation.

Chinese Comedy

The interpreter spoke Mandarin to the audience for a time roughly equal to that of Dad’s opening. Then he stepped aside, indicating that Dad should pick up where he had left off.

All the while the audience sat there stone-faced. They provided nary a giggle.

“What did you tell them?” Dad asked the translator.

“I told them what you said. Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s a joke.”

Dad then walked the translator through the opening again, pointing out to him the tale’s hilarious paradoxes and incongruities.

The interpreter nodded. He turned to the audience and uttered what sounded like three or four abrupt syllables, which took all of two seconds to pronounce.

The audience roared. They shook and trembled with laughter, tears running down their cheeks, ribbons of phlegm erupting from their nostrils.

“What did you tell them?” Dad asked.

The interpreter said, “I told them it’s a joke.”

When my own turn came several years later at the Beijing Film Academy, my interpreter said to me, “You speak for a while and then I will present the gist of what you say.”

“Thanks just the same,” I said, “but instead, I will speak a sentence, and then you will please translate it.”

I presented my opening sentence. The interpreter gestured to me, indicating that I should continue. I folded my arms and smiled serenely at him, compelling him then and there to translate the sentence.

He did so.

After the first sentence, I presented another. Again I stepped back, folded my arms across my chest, and smiled warmly at him. However reluctantly, he translated the second sentence.

In this manner we navigated the two-hour presentation.

Because I got my laughs on schedule, however delayed due to the lag between lecture and translation, I knew the translation was accurate.

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