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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

No mames, guey!”

No jodas, tu!”

No seas tan boludo!”

Take your pick. All three phrases say roughly the same thing, yet all three carry an unmistakable particularity that only begins with their regional identity. All three are what one might term street Spanish – but these are three very different streets, separated by continents and time zones and nationalities, much less lived history. When writing dialogue, the colloquial distinctions between Mexican, Caribbean and Argentine realities literally hang in the balance of one’s literary choice.

One might think that a smart writer – or at least one who had done a little research – would choose wisely from the three phrases and pick the one that fit the streets of the story being told. But one would be largely wrong — at least in the world of current teleplays and screenplays being shot on both U.S. coasts. Instead of choosing one of the three, or even better inventing a new and better phrase to capture the reality and identity of the street in question, the preponderance of contemporary movies and television script writers don’t even try to write in Spanish (or for that matter any other foreign language) when the their stories take them onto streets where English isn’t the only language. Rather, the accepted current choice is to simply write the English equivalent – “Don’t fuck with me!” or “Don’t be such a jerk!” – and then to wait for the auditioning actor to translate it for them.

This places the bilingual actor in question in a strange position, to say the least. More often than not, the audition material is longer and more substantial than the above example. Just as often, the casting director, producers, writer and director don’t know enough Spanish to tell the difference between Mexican, Cuban or Argentine vernaculars. And sometimes the auditioning actor has a tenuous grip on the Spanish language too, having forgotten or never having learnt idiomatic phrases like the above ones in the first place. Yet the translation must be made. The scene will be shot one way or the other and then shown on some kind of screen to the world. A writer will get credit for having written not simply the scene but those newly translated words, and may even receive an award from his or her peers for the work in question. Meanwhile, the chosen actor shoots the scene and moves on to the next role, the next audition – and the next translation on the fly.

What to do?

Before we try to answer, let’s add a bit more to this growing conundrum. Often, in an audition room where the writer, casting director, producers and director do not know the difference between “No jodas tu!” or “No seas tan boludo!” they hire someone who they believe does indeed have such knowledge and mastery. This person – termed an expert – becomes very powerful very quickly. The trouble is that this expert is often not an experienced professional and has not gone through anywhere near the process of auditioning or rewriting that actors and writers must endure along the way to success in their chosen fields. Often these experts know one thing well — perhaps an element within the storyline – but are just as tenuous with idiomatic Spanish as everyone else in the room, although they will never admit it. Yet because of the vacuum created by need and lack of knowledge, the expert becomes the arbiter. Invariably, mistakes and even illegalities occur; actors are asked where they are from, trespassing clear actor’s union rules much less federal regulations regarding discrimination. Actors who admit to, say, Caribbean backgrounds are then denied the chance to advance on projects centered in Mexico or Argentina. Other actors are forced to lie about their parentage in order to get the role. Still others may be lucky enough to have the right nationality for said expert and may get the role – and then prove to be ill-suited to the actual role, or in other words, bad actors. No wonder that so many television shows and films are cringe-worthy when it comes to Latino/a presentations, storylines and dialogue.

Is there a way to fix something this badly broken?

There is certainly no easy fix in sight, other than the slow but steady infiltration of the Industry by Latinos. Case in point: Cuban-born show runner Cynthia Cidre has brought new life into the DALLAS franchise not simply by re-imagining the Ewing family 20-some years later with the next generation of attractive Stetson-wearing philandering snakes in the grass but by including Latinos in the storyline, some wearing white hats and some wearing distinctly black ones. The cliffhanger of the second season involves the revelation that the Ewings stole their very ranch land from the Ramos clan around the time of the Texas annexation in the 19th Century, and that now mother Carmen and daughter Elena have the ancient deeds in their hands. Whether this means that Carmen can stop being the Ewing cook and housekeeper and can start to dress like Linda Grey and redecorate South Fork in Southwestern styles remains to be seen; but this development would never have happened without a true expert at the helm. And by expertise I mean not only that Cidre is fully bilingual and bicultural, but that she is also a fully vetted professional, the creator of the much-loved CANE, and highly respected throughout the Industry.

Similarly, a growing pool of fine actors are gaining hard experience traversing the Scylla and Charybdis of auditions and text translations, finding their way onto the screen and making the material literally better than it deserves to be. This is not a solution by any means; in some ways it only exacerbates the problem. Now writers feel more empowered to let actors do their research for them, particularly when no one calls them out for their laziness and inexactitude. Still, it is not quite so cringe-inspiring to see seasoned pros at work, demonstrating their acting abilities in two languages, and making the very best of an awful situation.

Do they deserve some kind of writing credit? Damned right they do. Will it ever happen? Perhaps the answer is up to all of us.

Oliver Mayer is a playwright and associate professor of dramatic writing at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts. His most recent plays include FORTUNE IS A WOMAN, about the life of Machiavelli, and MEMBERS ONLY, the sequel to his ground-breaking boxing play BLADE TO THE HEAT.

  • Teresa Marrero

    Great point, Oliver. An important one. For those of us who are multi-lingual and multi-cultural in many Spanish-language contexts (Cuban, Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean, Spanish), hearing ill-translated expressions immediately throws doubt over the entire production. It turns me off! This is the effect hearing a ‘no seas pendejo’ versus ‘no seas comemierda’ has on me. I mean, in a Brittish work, there are distinctions between a Scottish, Irish and English accent and phrasing. In U.S. English-language works, someone from Brooklyn does not use the same expressions as someone from Dallas. Why should we condone or accept sloppy work in the Latino/a experience? If drama is character driven by its very essence, then let’s make sure that the words coming out of their mouths suits the CHARACTERS! This seems like a basic principle of good dramaturgy.

    In the field of law and medicine, films and TV shows hire experts in the field, some from academia. Why not so with the written word? It would be terrific if the industry would reach out to linguistic/ literary experts from academia to lend a hand in this task. We may not be experts in the industry, but we sure know language. A nexus between the two worlds would benefit all.