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.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Just wait until they find out that you can DRAW too! They’ll have you doing the art work as well. I remember some of your drawings of aliens aliens. Then there was the deranged woodchuck . . .

    Seems like you are into Applied Linguistics already.

  2. Adding pauses at the wrong places would be even funnier, creating emotional sea-sickness.

  3. can we see these cartoons on the web like the last one?

  4. Did you ever see the Japanese martial arts type TV series “Monkey” (the only Japanese show broadcast, dubbed, in the British Isles, as far as I know). Anyway, a superb show, featuring a superb character called Pigsy, maybe you should understudy him a bit. When you get excited, on seeing a lovely girl or a tasty fish for example, the snorts to words ratio of your speech should increase. By the way the show was set in China and based on the Monkey King. I know that now, but didn’t way back then. I assumed it was Chinese as that was the only country referred to. It seemed curious to me, reading the credits, why Chinese people had names that sounded like Japanese motorcycles, like Suzuki.

  5. greg pasden Says: July 16, 2004 at 4:50 am

    John,

    who would have thought that when you left for china you would become an actor. could shanghai become the next hollywood (or would that be “hah-ry-woo”) or disney?

    Have fun.
    greg

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: July 16, 2004 at 6:25 am

    Snorts to words ratio–haha, that’s HILARIOUS!!!

    The robotic voice is a good idea, though you can also give maybe his alien friends typical laowai voices since they’re the ultimate foreigners so their tones would be SUPER messed up. Like just find your garden-variety laowais off the street, phonetically teach them their lines, then go from there.

    I guess it all depends on what the alien looks like too, whether he’s organic or not. I find it surprising that the Chinese turned to you, John (no offense), on what the character would sound like. From what I could see, the Chinese are experts at dubbing voices. Every single American movie I’ve seen in Chinese has been dubbed well, though it’s often not the case the other way around (the English-language to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was awful-awful-awful!). Another good example is the anime “Spirited Away.” The Mandarin version was spectacular, with the little girl having this really cool insecure voice; the English version was blah.

  7. JR,

    I’m not sure if the new cartoons will be posted on the Melody website or not. In any case, we just finished recording voice yesterday, so the cartoons won’t be done for a little while yet.

  8. Da Xiangchang,

    You can’t go too overboard with the laowai voice thing, because Chinese people would find it too laborious to listen to the character.

    I think my co-workers turned to me for help with the voices not because they couldn’t dub, but because they were lacking a bit in creativity. (That I’m sure you can believe.)

  9. the Language Instinct is a great intro to some of the deeper issues of modern linguistics and contriversial to boot, which makes it more interesting i think. it probably pushed me over the top when i was making my decision to go to grad school. john, you’ve got material for, like, 10 dissertaions. when and if you decide to do the grad school route, you’ll be so poised for the career track.

  10. Russel,

    Yea, Pinker did a good job on that one. Now if John could figure out how aliens would naturally make their own Chinese grammar then he would really be on his way.

  11. My right hand ring finger is imaired.
    Srry Rus.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: July 16, 2004 at 11:46 am

    Speaking of Chinese cartoons, I remember watching an old-looking “Monkey King” cartoon on TV a few years back in Shanghai. The new “Monkey King” cartoons suck big bear nuts, but the other one I saw was VERY well-done. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? You could tell the animators weren’t working with a big budget, but how they told the story was out-of-sight!

    I’ve always believe animators are the most creative filmmakers since they’re dealing with PURE IMAGINATION. With film, people are limited by their budgets. With animation, it’s less so. (There was a wonderful article in the LA Times recently about how little anime drawers really get paid.) So without a doubt, the greatest artists of the 20th century are not Joyce or Picasso or Spielberg but rather Walt Disney and Mel Blanc.

  13. The new “Monkey King” cartoons suck big bear nuts

  14. It’s interesting that Dudu is a native Chinese speaker but his voice is played by you. So you’re treated “native” in a way? Good for you!

    Seems really fun to work on these cartoons. Btw, need that alien speak any English?

  15. Rainbow,

    Yes, the alien speaks some English too, also in a monotone voice.

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