Monday, August 8, 2011

Shifting perspectives

As is often the way when we have a family get-together lately, we had an evening the other night of watching Kung Fu Panda, one of my toddler's favourite films. At the end, all the adults were playing with the special features on the DVD, and we happened across one that let you view the same scene in about a dozen different languages.

It was lots of fun- it's quite hilarious to see the personality that each different language automatically brings to an animated scene, just by the way it sounds. From a more guttural language like German, to a lyrical one like Italian or French, to one with very different tonality in Thai- each scene was identical, but they were markedly different, and if you didn't know what was going on, your interpretation would be all over the place.

It got me thinking about tone and language in the written word. Not that you're all that likely to rewrite a scene of your novel in half a dozen different languages just to check out the effect- and if you are, you're so totally showing off right now. Ahem. But I'm more interested in the emotional response the difference in language and tone can bring out in the audience or the reader.

Your characters probably have pretty set voices, depending on how long you've been writing them for. My shellshocked returned soldier Bill is unlikely to bust out of his quietly introverted persona and tell a bawdy slapstick joke. But if I stuck him in a room with a character whose personality did suit the telling of such a joke, then the resultant scene would probably teach me quite a few things- about my own writing, about what tone does and doesn't suit my story, about my secondary characters and their level of vibrancy, and finally even more about Bill based on how he'd react to the telling of said joke.

In other words, trying out a bit of a different tone, shifting gears a little bit, trying on another perspective, can teach you important things about a scene that it's impossible to spot from your usual point of view.

I know that writing the same scene from two different points of view always helps me see it more clearly. Maybe next time I'll have to roll out my only other fluent foreign language and try a little rewrite to see what happens... Or then again, maybe not.

This is the original scene you get to translate on the Kung Fu Panda DVD :)


  1. Yikes! I can see how Latin would change things. That's my only other language and I think the verbiage of Julius Caesar might not work so well. Not to mention the markedly smaller vocabulary I'd have to work with. ; ) Here's a random bit--Po would be introducing himself with "Po sum." LOL! Bet you heard possum when you read it. :-D

    Great post, Claire.

  2. Hey Claire,

    You're totally right - translation makes a huge difference.

    I used to watch a bit of anime in my teens, although I was far less interested in the shows than I was the music. Looking up translations and seeing how different people translated the songs different ways was a huge lesson. 5 people could give you 5 entirely different results, with entirely different emphases. I was never fluent enough to do it myself, but I can sure appreciate someone else's efforts. [g]

    It's still fun seeing the translation stuff at work, as here - although I think maybe I'm the only person alive who hasn't actually seen Kung Fu Panda.

    I agree that it's valuable to write scenes from different angles, too. I've only done it once or twice, but it was really helpful. Something to spend more time on! And you're spot on about the character/voice interactions, as well - I'm still learning about all that in mine!

    Great post! :-)

  3. You're right, Claire. There've been a few scenes here and there where, whether for myself or for an X, I've written from a different pov (sometimes the antagonist's) and it's always shown me something new.
    On the other hand, sometimes I feel like Tolkien, who translated all his characters' languages to English for The Lord of the Rings - I've got a Spanish speaker, a Spanish and Latin speaker, an Ottoman, etc. So I've got think their way, even though for the most part I write in English. I can't avoid Anglo-Saxon words completely and I hope I've got a little bit of linguistic nuance in there.
    Jo does that stuff brilliantly!

  4. I agree with Deniz that Jo does this remarkably well. Her character voices are so distinct.

    And I agree that it's important to write a scene from multiple POVs if only to find out more about each character that enhances your writing overall.

  5. Zan Marie- yep, I imagine Latin would definitely put a different spin on things!

    Jill- I always find it amusing to watch Italian films with English subtitles, because the translation always gives a subtly different meaning to what was originally said. It's not just words that do it in films, either- just the music can completely change a scene. I've always remembered a documentary I saw more than a decade ago where they showed a scene from the movie Babe, but changed the music to four different tones- from happy, to scary, to sad, to dramatic. Same scene, completely different effects. I'd love to be able to find a clip of that, but I haven't been able to. It was just so notable, how different it became.

    Deniz- interesting perspective! Yes, I can totally see how internally "translating" your foreign characters makes you view them in different ways. And Jo is, of course, the master :)

    Precie- my only problem is that I often can't decide which point of view I like better once I've written a few for the same scene :) Ah, well- variety is a good thing, or so I keep telling myself!

  6. Claire, this is such a unique way of exploring and understanding tone and language. Thank you for sharing it. I had to laugh when I saw the Kung Fu Panda clip. At lunch today my son asked me to reenact that very scene with him. :) I really like what you and your friends are doing here at All The World's Our Page, and I gave you a blog award. You can pick it up at The Parking Lot Confessional, which is my writers group blog: . ~ Amy