Thoughts on Language


Illuminati: An Audiobook Project 

Working with Elizabeth Fortin of Tell-Tale Publishing to turn Elizabeth Alsobrooks' novel "Illuminati: The Book of Life" into an audio experience was a breeze in that our communication was at all times open, transparent and the process positive and a highly memorable one. A professional collaboration to remember, for sure. I hope listeners enjoy the reading as much as we did creating the audio version. 


¿Señorita o maestra? 

¿Señora or señorita? ¿Señor or señorito? 

In a recent professional context in the field of education, I was asked to shed light on the distinction between the most common forms of address in Spanish. Since the setting is that of a dual-language primary school, here is what I wrote to justify the use of señorita to refer to female married and unmarried primary school teachers alike.

Originally, the distinction between the forms of address señorita, señora, señorito and señor were born out of the need to distinguish marital status. As language changes to reflect progressive ways of thinking, while some Spanish-speaking countries continue to use señorita to refer to an unmarried woman and señora to refer to a married one, the term señorita is used across the board to refer to primary school teachers regardless of their marital status (interesting note: In primary schools, the word for teacher is maestro/-a, whereas in middle and high school this changes to profesor/-a).


Directing Voice Over Talent

Directing a voice over project implies you are familiar with the basic acting principles that the talent has studied and she or he is ready to apply to the project about to be recorded.

Directing with some familiarity of the artistic intricacies involved in the creative process of acting can make all the difference in the outcome of the project. Conversely, taking the text apart, not allowing talent to give a few uninterrupted read-throughs with natural flow and micro-managing to the point of taking a word apart too often can make the talent lose sight of the entirety and purpose of the text at hand and become a mechanical tool that is being used in a non-creative way.

It is magic when the dance happens because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. The voice talent becomes nothing but an instrument when direction is approached from a mechanical standpoint and creative freedom is stifled. A successful voice over project will no doubt opt to dance.      



Accent Coaching for Actors


 Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Sophie's Choice (1982) 

Any screenplay set in another country inevitably involves the need for accent coaching whether there are native English speaking actors involved who have to sound convincing in another language (Sir Ben Kingsley in The House of Sand and Fog or Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice) or casting native speakers of the foreign language in question (Persian speaking actors in Argo -commonly referred to as “Farsi”– though this actually is the word used in Persian to refer to the Persian language).  

Ben Affleck’s latest feature film, Argo, tells the story of the beginnings of the Iranian revolution and its impact on the American embassy and its employees in 1979 Tehran. When background artists (aka extras) were in charge of chanting slogans in Persian, it was somewhat believable and those multitude scenes worked. However, in some of the minor speaking parts, Persian and Dari became indistinguishable (for instance, the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper’s name, Sahar, spoke Dari; yet we were never given any hint throughout the film that she was from Afghanistan and not Iran). The devil is in the details. Or, suddenly, one of the revolutionary guards had a Dari accent instead of a Persian one. The audience member able to tell the difference was left wondering if Hollywood cared about such subtleties as much as the importance of continuity or location-hunting. This is when an accent coach on set becomes of utmost importance because in a sense they are the keepers of continuity in language and speech, not to mention delivery (accent).

If you are playing the part of someone with a different linguistic make up, you need a coach to guide you in the right direction so that your intonation and stress patterns are in place and believable to the native speakrs of that language. 











In The House of Sand and Fog directed by Vadim Perelman, Sir Ben Kingsley plays the part of Bahrani, the Iranian general who goes to all lengths to maintain the life style and dignity that displacement in the form of exile ensures is stripped away from him. Sir Kingsley has very few lines or words in Persian (most of his lines require that he speak English with a Persian accent). However, towards the end of the film, he has to utter a word twice when his teenage son is shot. At this point, he is to howl out of grief and despair: “Pesaram! Pesaram!” (“My son! My son!”). Instead of placing the word stress on the first syllable and potentially continuing to be believable (something a native speaker would do without thinking), the utterance sounded the opposite “pesarAM”, with the weight of the word at the end of the word rather than the beginning. At that moment, Sir Kingsley’s eternally-revered talent, at all times capable of taking us with him on any journey, from Ghandi to Don Logan, came to a screeching halt. Why? Because we ceased to believe; because if we, the audience, understand, pardon and accept certain necessities for the movie industry to continue existing with its set of standards (having to use a star name to play a part for which native talent exists for financial reasons) we accept it, ride along and even enjoy and applaud the performance with awards. After all, aren’t actors supposed to challenge themselves? Play parts that are as different as possible from them? Work on acquiring the accent needed to sound convincing in a foreign language? And, aren’t production companies aware that the need to hire seasoned accent coaches to work closely with actors is paramount to the overall success of the project at hand? That it is a part of the filmmaking process that can’t be left behind?  


The same is true of The Stoning of Soraya M. How are we to believe the protagonist is indeed a villager who is a native speaker of Persian when she suddenly speaks with a western foreign accent?  



Here is the ultimate question: Shouldn’t attention to speech and accent coaching on set be an integral part of building a character, of the film process? If so, why do we see such inconsistencies in Hollywood productions? Just like costume, set and make-up designers are an important part of the filmmaking process, in charge of their field of expertise, we need to ensure an accent coach is present to help actors get closer to the intonation, pronunciation and word stress that will complete their performance and ultimately benefit the film as a whole. The future of filmmaking might have this prediction in store.

















Free Online English Persian Dictionaries: How Effective Are They?

A phenomenal project landed on my lap recently, allowing me to use my Persian language skills to review translated articles for the National Geographic Society. This prompted me to look closely at existing free Persian dictionaries online, all of which offer translation solutions in both directions: English into Persian and vice versa.

It is interesting to use these dictionaries, along with hardback ones that are a little more detailed, and notice that for some terms the answer will be in the online one and for some others in the printed versions at hand.

The first dictionary that impressed me was The lady sun logo, all too familiar to anyone not new to Persian culture, feels reassuring and familiar. The colors are neither too obscure, nor too bright. It works. Dictionary-Farsi even offers tabs for proverbs and idioms, a treat for anyone familiar with old Persian dictionaries that did not contain such clear cut divisions. It was impressive to see that one could find the equivalent of the English idiom “Jack of all trades” in Persian or that of the proverb “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” More impressive is the fact that one only needs to type in one word and a range of suggestions will pop up on the line right below the search box.

Another one that has an appealing interface is It is easy to type a search and offers an added bonus of narrowing one’s search down to “starts with”, “exact” or “contains”, the latter of which bears more results from which to choose. An added bonus is the iphone app compatibility with: for those wishing to use this resource on the go.

I personally have not had much luck with This could be because of the small font, or because I often get the message “not found”. Yet, because of the mind behind it, I know it to be a great source of reference. In addition to the search criteria “starts with”, “exact” or “contains”, this site also offers “word of the day”, “random word” and “story of the day”.

The most modern interface and search box has to be that of It predicts the word as one types and pops up options (much like the online dictionaries for romance languages that are faster because of this feature and the lack of difference in writing systems). Aria Dic seems to focus on translating from and into Spanish, French, Swedish, German, Arabic and Italian (I tried a couple of examples to test Spanish into Persian for ‘yerno’ and did not get results; and for ‘suegro’, it was only willing to show ‘suegra’ and for French the letter ‘a’ would appear as a ‘q’).

All of these dictionaries offer a tab where a keyboard appears on screen with Persian letters, should one need to look up reverse meanings. Often, these need to be exact or they won’t show results.

One main suggestion is that all online English into Persian dictionaries need to work on phrasal verbs. When you type in “pass out” or “put up with”, nothing comes up.  

Given that the switching of the writing system continues to be a hassle due to the inherent features of common keyboards, the efforts gathered in all of these dictionaries are highly admirable. As a linguist, I am grateful to the minds behind these free online dictionaries and look forward to more progress and fine-tuning on all of them.