What Does an Alien Sound Like When it Speaks Chinese?
16 Jul 2004
My company is still busy preparing a bunch of short educational cartoons. They’re supposed to air on CCTV at the end of August, I think. (I’ll let you all know.)
Anyway, I seem to have been typecast. Last time I played the voice of a slow-witted pig named “Dudu” (the Chinese think this name is cute, and even after they found out what “doo-doo” means in English, refused to change his name!). For this recent run of cartoons, the cast has been changed, and I now play the part of a different pig character named “Asta.” (I have no idea where that name came from; a lot of our characters’ names are strange, to my chagrin.)
Why do they keep sticking me with the pig role?? I guess it’s because (1) I do it well; not many of the others can alter their voices much at all, (2) he’s the only character that can feasibly have a relatively deep voice, and (3) he’s dim-witted and speaks slowly, so it’s an easier part for the foreigner to handle. Sad but true.
This time there’s also an alien in the cast. When our parts were assigned, the question arose: what should the alien’s voice sound like? That was an especially tough question for me. Chinese is not my mother tongue — how am I supposed to know what an alien would sound like in Chinese? And yet everyone turned to me, as the “voice-change expert” to come up with something good.
What we ended up doing was making the alien’s voice monotone, like a stereotypical robot’s. The obvious linguistic problem with that is how can you make a tonal language monotone and still keep it intelligible? It was actually a bit of a problem. We managed to fix it, however. None of the alien’s lines were too complex, but in order to keep monotone Chinese readily intelligible, pauses were key. Once again, I don’t know why, but they turned to me for guidance. I seemed to be better at breaking up the Chinese sentences into discrete chunks of meaning than they were*. They all agreed the alien’s lines were easier to understand after my recommended pauses were inserted.
So we have already finished the latest batch of 10 cartoons. My pig lines were a snap, and I think I’m actually getting better at it. The alien’s voice, once altered by Cool Edit Pro, actually sounds pretty cool. And it’s always a real joy (in an educational way, of course) to see native speakers screwing up Chinese lines, even on such fundamental issues as tones. (And I’m not talking about the alien’s lines, either.)
This job of mine remains very interesting.
* One reason this was especially interesting was I was just reading about this kind of thing in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, my current read. It is really a fascinating read for anyone at all interested in language. A lot of the linguistics in it I have already studied, but it’s still not boring (except maybe for Chapter 4). It was published in 1994, but is hardly dated at all yet.