Talky Tuesday: Un poco Coco

The first time I saw the Spanish version of Coco 4 years ago, I think I got about 60% of it. Watching it a second time now surprised me.

Inspired by Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day last week, I’d been thinking about watching Coco again, but then seeing it pop up on Disney+ as Coco (In Spanish) just clinched it, so last Friday night I had to give what I consider to be the “real” version a second look.

Of course, for reasons known only to… nobody, maybe?… when I started up the Spanish version on Disney+, I was greeted with a soundtrack in English, which was doubly ridiculous because I knew that a Spanish-language version of the film existed. I’d seen it in a theater, so it was not an hallucination.

It turns out that I had to manually switch the spoken language from English to Spanish, which makes no sense at all. I mean, considering that they have the English and Spanish versions right next to each other as separate choices, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the Spanish version to not start up in Spanish.

No reason other than, you know — white, Anglo bias.

When the film came out originally four years ago, as soon as I read that Disney/Pixar were going to be releasing a version that had specifically been rescripted and dubbed in Spanish, I knew that it was the one I wanted to see.

Firstly because it seemed like the only appropriate language to tell the story in, but secondly because, as a student of Spanish, it seemed like a good time to take a real-world test.

So I found the Spanish language screening at a theatre in North Hollywood, went to the box office to buy a ticket from the pale, red-headed woman at the counter who looked at my Irish-Nordic ass and immediately said, “This screening is only in Spanish.”

It didn’t sound like it was confirming my decision. Rather it came off as, “You’re not going to understand a word.”

I just smiled, said, “That’s why I’m here,” and gave her my money.

That was almost exactly four years ago. I slipped into the theater, found a seat on the center aisle away from the other audience members — all Hispanic families — and sat down to watch.

I loved the film from the first frames and cried more than a few times during its run time. As for the dialogue, I’d have to say that, at that time, I understood maybe about 60% of what was said, more in some parts and less in others.

Still, I got the basic gist of the story if not the exact relationships between the protagonist Miguel and his deceased family members and couldn’t understand most of what Gael García Bernal’s character Hector said.

The reasons for the latter became evident this time around.

Anyway, it was a turning point in my long, ongoing self-education in Spanish, which I think has been going for about nine years now. Having not really had much opportunity for practicing conversation for complicated reasons, I had at least been working on comprehension, largely through immersion.

My car radio, for example, had been set on a local Spanish language station since I got it in late 2013, and I spent many a commute listening to the morning and evening shows and gradually understanding more and more.

Ironically, since I’ve been told that it’s harder to understand sung lyrics than spoken words, I found the opposite to be true, and at one point had a karaoke collection in my head of at least half a dozen songs in Spanish I could have belted out at a moment’s notice, if only the opportunity had ever come up.

Narrator’s Voice: “But it never did.”

Still… in watching the film in late 2017, I pretty much only got it in broad strokes: Music was banned in Miguel’s family because of something that happened in the past; his great-great grandfather was a famous musician and actor, no doubt modelled on several Mexican movie idols of the 1930s and 40s, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead, where he meets up with his defunct ancestors, one of whom — Mamá Imelda — is clearly the matriarch of the deceased members of the Rivera clan, although I was never sure whether she was Miguel’s grandmother, great-grandmother, or however many steps above that, and I certainly had no idea how all of the various tío/as and papás fit into it.

Yeah, terms for specific family members tend to be one of those things terribly specific to any given language and culture and also something that native speakers grow up with, but which learners are rarely exposed to in school because, why?

So, yeah. I had no idea at that time what nieto/a, yerno, suegra, bisabuelo/a, or tatarabuelo/a meant.

Between then and now, I watched the film in the English language version (which I consider to be the dubbed one) and it was still fun, but just seemed somehow off.

Which brings me back to last weekend and my second viewing of the Spanish version, and I really don’t consider it a cheat having watched it twice previously, because I let myself pretty much forget the specifics (that I hadn’t forgotten already) and just go with it and… wow.

What a difference four more years of immersion and practice make. I found myself understanding almost every spoken word this time around, and also getting most of the jokes, which had just flown over my head previously.

Of course, having long since passed the point of translating to English in my head — which hadn’t been the case in 2017 — also made it lightyears easier.

I understood why the Rivera family under Imelda had rejected music long ago to become shoemakers (it’s all in the opening) and followed everything else as Miguel tries to sneak out from his Grandmother and her vengeful chancla to go play guitar in Mariachi Plaza.

Then, when he’s suddenly sucked into the land of the dead, not only was I able to understand the exact relationships as he described them, but I finally knew why Mamá Imelda did not make the trip across the Marigold Bridge with the rest of the family this time.

Her photo was not on the family ofrenda, and it was not there because Miguel had inadvertently taken it. Photos on ofrendas for remembrance, in the film, are basically passports for the dead to visit the living.

Another joke I’d missed originally — one of the dead with amazing teeth gets to come back because his photo is on the ofrenda maintained by his dentist.

So far so good, and I’m following it all, and then we meet Gael García Bernal’s Hector for the second time. Previously, he had tried to run the border disguised as Frida Kahlo, but was caught when he sank into the Marigold Bridge (yes, it’s definitely a visual metaphor for crossing the Rio Grande), and winds up in the office of an emigration official.

And suddenly this scene became very incomprehensible, driven by the kinetic energy of Bernal’s vocal performance combined with the animation in which he keeps disassembling and reassembling his skeleton in order to keep his interviewer off-guard.

He ultimately fails to convince the officer, and I only understood his exit line, as he asked whether he could take his Frida costume with him, only to be told “No.”

—¿Puedo traer mi disfraz?

—No.

Still… everything is clear until Miguel and Hector finally meet up and, yet again, it suddenly gets murky on Hector’s part until he starts calling Miguel “chamaco,” and then it hits me.

My god — Bernal is slanging it up Mexican style, so of course I can’t understand him. And, of course, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s puro chilango (Mexico City slang) or just Mexican slang in general, but it does remind me of a very delightful biopic about another Mexican film icon.

This would be from the Spanish-language film Cantinflas, the biopic of the man who was basically the Charles Chaplin of Mexico and who almost but not quite made it to international superstardom via the epic film Around the World in 80 Days. Anyway, early on in the film, Mario Moreno (Cantinflas) has met his future wife, Valentina Ivanova, a Russian woman who lives in Mexico but who is otherwise fluent in Spanish.

While they’re walking together in Mexico City while he’s on tour, he runs across a friend in the street, and they proceed to have a rapid-fire conversation which, if you weren’t born and raised in Mexico City, you probably won’t get at all. (Dog knows that I didn’t.)

At the end of it, Valentina looks at him and says, “What language was that, Spanish?”

His reply: “No. Puro mexicano.”

And he’s not wrong.

Probably the closest English equivalent to this that I can think of is something like Cockney, which involves obscure rhyming slang, and you just either know it or you don’t.

And the incomprehensibility transcends the cockney accent. Even spoken in British RP or American Newscaster English, it would not make sense without the key.

“Butcher them Bristols, Ken.”

“I know, Mark. Them scotches ain’t bad, neither.”

“Yeah, but boat like a bottle, sadly.”

“You’d have to be right Brahms’d to fire up your orchestras over that one.”

Even if you do speak English, you probably didn’t understand that at all. Now imagine how extra difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker. Here’s the translation from Cockney to real English.

“Look at those tits, Ken!” (Butcher’s hook = “look”; Bristol cities = “titties”.)

“I know, Mark. Those legs aren’t bad, either.” (Scotch eggs = “legs”)

“Yes, but face like an ass, sadly.” (Boat race = “face”; bottle and glass = “ass”)

“You’d have to be really pissed (drunk) to work up your balls over that one.” (Brahms and Liszt = “pissed”; orchestra stalls = “balls”)

Oops. I think I was discussing a family film. The other complication in Cockney slang, of course, is that sometimes they leave both words in and sometimes they only take the first word from the rhyming pair.

Of course, you don’t have to be Cockney or from Mexico City to come up with colorful slang all on your own, and the British author Marjorie Allingham, who wrote a series of detective novels featuring Albert Campion. His assistant, Lugg, once came up with this doozy: “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.”

Apparently, it meant, “It’s crazy to bribe a cop with worthless money,” but in the 1950s, a writer for MAD Magazine saw it and all the writers began slipping it into the magazine in various places. Kids saw it and, while they had no idea what it meant either, they started using it, frequently as a nonsense answer to their parents.

Basically, it went viral by word of mouth and a comic popular with teenagers.

But, even though eight out of ten words in the quote are perfectly understandable English, the two that aren’t throw everything off and make the entire thing a mystery.

That was kind of like the first time I saw Coco in Spanish. I knew most of the words in the sentences, but then one or two would pop up and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. This time around, though, a lot of those mystery words are part of my vocabulary, and suddenly there was no mystery.

That’s how language learning works. Be persistent, practice or study a little bit every day, and immerse yourself when possible. You’ll be surprised how your brain will pick up on and retain things.

Just remember: When you first learned your native language before you ever went to school, you just picked it up by listening to the other people around you. You may have just been approximating things at first — “Me, juice now?” — but eventually moved to more complete sentences and chances are, short of developmental challenges, you could at least hold a very simple conversation with an adult by the time you started school.

It’s the same thing learning a language as an adult. Don’t let them lie to you and tell you it’s impossible. It isn’t. You just have to put yourself in the same place you were as a child, listen, repeat, and learn from your mistakes.

Good luck!

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