Contributed by Esther Hermida.
My professional life has taken me to places that I never dreamed of. My interpreting skills have been a springboard to many other opportunities. I’ve done a self-evaluation as to why I’ve been the beneficiary of these opportunities, and one conclusion I’ve reached is that I don’t turn down any opportunity for new professional experiences. When presented with any work request related to my language combination, I remind myself I have the knowledge base, cultural association, and the experience gained from years as a Spanish interpreter. I know how to interpret and how people communicate. I know the subtleties of my language combination.
Many of the interesting jobs I’ve done have been as a direct result of my professional network and the relationships I’ve maintained with my colleagues. The warm friendships developed with many colleagues have been a tremendous asset to me. Years ago, a colleague referred me to an agency looking for someone who could help an actress with her Cuban Spanish lines. That led to my first foray into the field was working on the set with Jennifer Garner of Alias.
I proudly added that experience to my resume, then I got another call, and then another. I don’t remember how they found my name, but it just may be that if you Google Spanish Dialect Coach you’ll run into my name and some of the things I’ve done. You can’t be shy about tooting your own horn because that’s exactly what people who need your services need to know.
My Mayans M.C. Experience
The Mayans came after a long hiatus from dialect coaching since I don’t promote those services, per se. Their search online led them to me, as they were looking for people who have already done something similar.
In early January a Mayans M.C. production staff member contacted me to see if I was able to assist as a dialect coach for Mayans MC, Season 4 on FX. After a Zoom interview with a bilingual executive producer who was a writer herself, it was determined that I was a good fit for the show. I was assigned a point person who arranged everything for me and facilitated communication with key players in the show.
To summarize, I was to submit my translation of the requested script lines, with the understanding that it may not be identical to the English version, but rather an adaptation reflective of cultural differences evident in language. I received contact information for all the actors speaking their Spanish lines and I was to be available by Zoom to help the actors learn their lines and correct their pronunciation.
My first task was to watch the prior seasons so that I could familiarize myself with the themes, tone, and the characters. I began searching for slang spoken along the California/Mexico border. I pulled out some notes from a CSI episode I had worked on, just in case. I listened very intently to the average person living in a border town on YouTube. I saved many for future reference. I already had quite a bit of experience interpreting for different folks in state court; and the many years of transcription work of tapped calls. I also interpreted for a few high-ranking drug traffickers that didn’t quite fit the profile of a drug lord. They were educated folks from different parts of Latin America.
Once I received my first episode, I read the entire script. My task was to translate lines in bold. I read simple lines repeatedly, thinking how an average Mexican person would say it. It’s easier said than done. I was trying to adapt the text to add more Mexican flavor. When I was stuck, I simply went on Facebook and asked questions of my Mexican colleagues. I was very specific as to the terms used in the region. I submitted my lines, sometimes with options, and the writing team selected what was appropriate.
My Duties on the Set or Location
With most of the series for which I’ve provided my services, I’ve translated the script, showed up when I get a Call Sheet which tells me the location, the time to appear, and everyone who will be there that day. It’s either on the set (studio) or on location. My job is to make sure the actors say their lines correctly. I sit with the script supervisor and the director; at times this will be at the village. There is a significant collaborative effort with the actors, writers, director, etc. Everyone on the production is equipped with a COMTEK receiver to hear everything the actors say. I take notes of the mispronunciations or changes to the actual lines. The script supervisor relies heavily on me to make sure the actors are saying their lines correctly, if not, I must let her know so it’s said correctly in the next take. When the actor makes a mistake or says something other than what’s on the script, I must run it by the director and/or the writer, who decides whether to leave it or not. They have several takes of the same scene and they may cut and paste the best one, but they prefer to have at least one good one to work with, so they don’t have to fix it through Additional Dialogue Replacement (ADR).
It’s not as glamorous as you might think. One of my call times was at 5:30 AM. Many times, I worked past midnight. My half days were 6 hours. My full days were, at times, 14-hours long. At times, I worked for three consecutive days, others once per week. We were on location on the high desert for a few days with wind, rain, and dropping temperatures in the evening. Dressing for the weather and the terrain required winter coats, hiking boots along with the mandatory masks kept me warm. There are also days which were delightful. We had a day on location at a mansion in the hills of Malibu, filming a pool scene.
Putting My Work to The Test
Only two or three of my terms were rejected, with an explanation as to why they came to their conclusions. For example, I chose chota for “cops” but was told that policía would be better understood. In another instance, I translated “my baby” as mi’jito. Much to my chagrin the actor decided to use “mi bebé” instead. When I asked him why he preferred his version, he stated that’s how he talks to his own child. I cannot expound here as to the reasons why I disagree with his choice, but if you watch the episode, you’ll know why it may sound awkward.
An amusing revision that took place involved the phrase: “Stop this charade”. I translated it as déjate de payasadas, but the actor who knows his character well decided to go with déjate de pendejadas. He was very apologetic and didn’t want to offend me. I actually thought it was an improvement over my version!
My one objection to a revision made to my translation was for the line: En gustos se rompen géneros as a translation for “There’s no accounting for taste.” There are many ways of saying this in Spanish, but I knew, and confirmed, that my version is a common expression in Mexico. It had to be said exactly as written. The actress (a former interpreter and translator) is very experienced and talented but couldn’t say that one line correctly. It required a few takes to get it right. She said she never heard of that expression, so it was difficult for her to remember.
It’s up to the writer and the director to accept or reject the actor’s choice. As a side note, the actors who change the script tend to be those who appear only in a few scenes. The regulars tend to adhere faithfully to the script. It’s hard to predict how an actor will perform with his/her Spanish lines. One character who is a ruthless killer added profanity not found in the original, which gave the character more gravitas. When asked, I typically agreed, and so did the writers who were on the set.
My experience in the Mayans M.C. has been extremely gratifying. Everyone, starting with the executive producers all the way to production assistants, were extremely polite, helpful, and grateful that I was there to make their jobs easier. It’s nice to be greeted with a hug from the actors I worked with. It was a real treat learning that one of the main actors I worked with had his directorial debut in one of my scenes. He speaks Spanish fluently, but that was not his job. The dialect coach needed to be there.
My advice to those who want to dabble in this field is to never, ever tell the director how to direct or advise the writer that what they wrote is awkward in English and therefore difficult to translate into Spanish. It’s our job to make it happen. The primary writer is part of a collaborative team that brainstorms over each word spoken and the reasons behind it. Never tell the actors how to act or interpret their lines. There are exceptions, of course, but I don’t know that I’m capable of explaining it. As a native Spanish speaker my intuition is essential to the process.
I thoroughly enjoy my job as a dialect coach because I’m lending my expertise to the creative process that brings entertainment to the public. I’m much more appreciative of all the hard work put in by so many passionate professionals in the entertainment industry. Very few people outside our field use our language skills as often as we do, so I think we’re all very capable of taking on new opportunities which utilize our unique skill sets. I hope my experience inspires you to accept challenging and exciting offers that come your way.
 There are many dialect coaches who are actors, and linguists that spend weeks and months training an actor to speak with a certain accent. These coaches do not necessarily know another language but study the dialect and research the way people used to talk for period movies or local dialects. My task as a dialect coach (language expert) is very specific, and I am very clear as to what I can do and not do.
 The main purpose of video village is to enable the director and key crew members to see what the camera and its operator see without looking into the camera themselves.
Esther M. Hermida has 30 years of experience as a California and Federal court certified Spanish Interpreter and a conference interpreter. She has experience in SAP en español simulcasts. Esther is a co-founder and current President of the American Alliance of Professional Translators and Interpreters (AAPTIconnect.org) and she may be contacted at her personal website, estherhermida.com.