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 :)