Pop Culture

Dear Hollywood, Mandarin is not the same as gibberish

This is not only the respectful thing to do in an increasingly globalised world, but also a necessity to sell movies outside the US

Hollywood actress Amy Adams is fantastic in the role of a top linguistics expert in Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi thriller Arrival - until she starts speaking Mandarin.

In one crucial scene towards the end of the film, she utters a few lines in Mandarin to a Chinese military general. The scene does not come with subtitles - reportedly a deliberate decision the director made to add to the overall mystery.

But for Mandarin-speaking viewers such as myself, who do not require subtitles, the dialogue is equally incomprehensible - Adams' pronunciation is so terrible, the whole speech sounds like gibberish.

While the scene is a small part of the film, it stuck out like a sore thumb for me in what I felt was otherwise a near-perfect work.

If Hollywood actors can be lambasted for ruining movies with poor English accents, they should be held equally accountable for sabotaging foreign languages.

After Villeneuve has paid so much attention to make every detail in the movie as authentic as possible - his team even consulted a real-life linguistics professor on the look of Adams' office, right down to the specific books on her shelves - why did he not apply the same rigorous standard to her Mandarin lines?

I do not expect her to sound like a native speaker; the tonal inflections in Mandarin are difficult to master within a short time.

But her dialogue should at least be comprehensible; otherwise, what is the point?

Had anyone played back her speech to a Chinese military general in real life, he would not have grasped two words.

Perhaps, the film-makers of Arrival did not deem the pronunciation too important, as it would likely fly right over the heads of most viewers in North America anyway.

That would be wrong.

In an increasingly globalised world where the box-office success of Hollywood movies no longer depends on the domestic American market alone, getting foreign languages to sound right in a film will not only be the respectful thing to do, it will also be a necessity.

In the case of Arrival, Mandarin was likely written in to pander to the massive Chinese film market, which analysts predict will overtake the United States with the biggest global box-office share by the end of the year.

After all, the film's story could have worked just as well had the plot involving China been changed to another country altogether - one whose language is easier for Adams to master. A European language such as French or Spanish would be less challenging for an American who likely studied these while growing up in the American school system.

If the film-makers had indeed been so mercenary, it is an even bigger insult to see them so half-hearted about the Mandarin.

This is the same reason why Hong Kong citizens were furious when one of Arrival's movie posters was first released - it featured an alien spaceship hovering above Hong Kong's iconic skyline, except that Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower was added to the mix.

When you get something about a culture so wrong, it is an affront to someone's identity. And as language is a huge part of someone's identity, it should be treated with respect.

If Hollywood actors can be lambasted for ruining movies with poor English accents - look at all the listicles just dedicated to naming and shaming the actors who have delivered the worst Scottish or Australian accents, for example - they should be held equally accountable for sabotaging foreign languages.

Just because the Hollywood industry players do not realise that the language sounds off, there will always be someone else in the world who will.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Crucial to make foreign languages sound right in movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe