Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Transcribing A Non-Native Speaker’s English Can Teach You

So here’s another instalment on the subject of learning about writing dialogue by transcribing real speech, this time a non-native English speaker, speaking English.

As witnessed by a recent discussion on the Shooting People screenwriting forum, it’s not always obvious how to write dialogue which has a strong regional or foreign accent. The consensus seems to be that it’s best to keep phonetic spelling to a minimum, while making sure the speech itself reflects characteristic local phrases or grammatical errors, and indicating the particular accent in parenthesis.

The following excerpts are taken from another favourite podcast of mine, CBC’s Writers & Company, presented by Eleanor Wachtel. In this interview she talks to Antonio Skarmeta, the renowned Chilean novelist and screenwriter, whose English is excellent, but still clearly not his first language.

In this snippet there are a couple of aspects which typify his use of English. Try reading this with the requisite pronunciation:

....................SKARMETA
.................(Chilean accent)
............…and one day my father said to
............me: “Listen son, have you seen
............that you have now enough stories
............to publish a book?” And I
............haven't notice it, because
............for me it was fun to write!

“…have you seen that you have now…” is a not turn of phrase a native speaker would normally use, and “I haven’t notice it…” is the kind of grammatical error that a Spanish speaker would easily make.

Here Skarmeta talks about one of his mother’s favourite songs:

....................SKARMETA
............This a very sad song, because
............it's about a couple who cannot
............go living together because of
............some mysterious thing, that is
............never made clear. The man say
............to the woman, we have to part,
............I'm sorry... I'm so sorry about
............it, but there's nothing we can
............do about it.

Here too, a couple of characteristic mistakes: “This a very sad song…” and “…who cannot go living together…” and “The man say…” which when coupled with the accent are more than enough to suggest a Spanish speaker, speaking English.



Using these kinds of real-life speech patterns is far more effective than trying to mimic a Spanish accent phonetically. And nowadays, with so much speech available in MP3 format on the web, eets a piss of cayk to practees zis skeel. You see?

The main priority is to make the dialogue just as easy to read as the dialogue of a native English speaker. As soon as the reader has to make an extra effort to read unconventionally spelled dialogue, you run the risk of distracting their attention from the flow of the story.

I hope Mr. Skarmeta, whose impressive oeuvre includes the classic Il Postino, doesn’t mind me using his English to make a screenwriting point. Suffice it to say that his English is infinitely more impressive than my Spanish…

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