Word Play: Language Barriers in Entertainment
By Dawn Chiang
In the days before the Internet and e-mail, I was designing the lighting for a show in Germany. The theater in Munich had sent me the drawings for the theater and the lighting equipment inventory.
The plan and section drawings in German were pretty straightforward to figure out. Deciphering the inventory list required more research. Fortunately, I had a lighting design book that had English translations for most of the types of theatrical lighting equipment used in Germany. I carefully made my way through the German equipment list, finding the English descriptions for all but the last three items. I was stuck.
I composed a fax to send overseas.
“Do you have technical data sheets for the last three items on your lighting inventory list?”
I waited patiently for a reply, which followed a few hours later.
Ah yes. I now remembered that I was dealing with the German language and culture, which could be very literal and exact. The respondent had indeed answered my question. This was the corollary to “Garbage in, garbage out”, the computer science premise that the quality of the output is determined by the quality of the input.
I rephrased my request in the next fax.
“Please fax me those three technical data sheets.”
The request, more specifically stated, resulted in receiving the desired information.
Several weeks later, while the German electrics crew and I were working onstage, a bright, energetic woman from the theater staff came over to me to introduce herself in English.
“Hello, I am Greta. I will be the stage manager for your production.”
“Hello, Greta,” I replied, “it is good to meet you.”
She handed me the schedule for the week and left for her next appointment.
The head electrician was a smart, bilingual, straight talking stagehand. Our working relationship had grown to the point where he would share his candid opinions, albeit in a warm manner, on things besides channel numbers and fixture locations.
“When you were speaking with Greta, you said something quite incorrect,” he said.
“What was that?”
“You said that it was good to meet her,” he responded. “How do you know that it is good to meet her? You don’t even know her yet!”
Busted again, in a good-natured way, for being too colloquial…
By contrast, while lighting a show in Paris, that crew was all about new lingo.
When drafting the light plot for the show, I tried my best to use the French names for the lighting positions. There was just one lighting position for which I could not find the French equivalent, so I ended up using the English term.
When I arrived in Paris, the head electrician inquired, “Qu’est-ce c’est ‘Le Boom’?”
I pointed to the two vertical pipes located just offstage in the wings stage left and stage right.
“Ahh, c’est la ‘Girafe’!” he exclaimed.
“Giraffe” — of course, I thought — what perfect a name for the 5-meter tall vertical pipe.
The crew became totally smitten by the word “Boom”. They imagined it described the very large sound one hears when a small explosion goes off. It tickled them to no end. All through the two weeks while I was in residence, they tried to work the word into as many conversations as possible:
“Dunn-eh” (the closest that they could come to pronouncing my name, Dawn), we are ready to focus ‘Les Booms’!” followed by big smiles of delight upon hearing their new favorite word.
Or – “Dunn-eh, is everything OK for ‘Les Booms’?” more smiles and more gurgles of delight.
We had a fun time during those couple of weeks.
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