Lost in Translation and Spaghetti

Despite having studied Russian for approximately three years, I did not speak the language well, only really knowing, “Hi, how are you?” and “Good” and “Goodbye.”  Which meant that when I laid out story with my team of Russian writers, I had an interpreter.

The first week my writers of “Poor Anastasia” met with me they were furious with how I was telling story, insisting it wasn’t very Russian, no one in Russia would behave in such a way, and the Tsar (remember, this was an historical soap, the Tsar and his handsome son and heir featured prominently) would never do whatever I was proposing he do (get involved in his son’s romances, have emotional conversations with his wife).  You name it, whatever I suggested, my writers hated it.

Early on, my interpreter, a frail-looking young woman whose name I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve forgotten, told me the writers were correct.  The story was not very Russian.  No one in Russia would watch the show.  Once I ascertained she had never written anything before in her life and had no experience working on a soap, I told her to not tell me that, just interpret.  Which she took to mean to tell the writers what she just told me about the show not being very Russian!

She was transferred out of the writers’ room and replaced by Masha Saltykova, who had spent a year in an American high school and not only spoke English extremely well but understood and tolerated me, the crazy American.

Nonetheless, I knew story was getting lost in translation and that I not only had to make sure my stories, character motivations and plot twists were as specific as possible but I had to be able to support my rationale for all my proposals since the Russian writers questioned everything.  And that, by the way, turned out to be extremely beneficial as it forced me to ensure my stories and character motivations  were as clear and as understandable as possible.  If I couldn’t convince my writers why I wanted to have a character behave in a certain way, I soon came to realize it was because my own rationale was weak or unclear.  Which in turn caused me to rethink that character’s actions.

When the show began shooting, I was on the set one day with Jeff Lerner, my Sony executive, and Tony Morina, an American soap director and producer who was hired to supervise the Russian director and production team.  We were observing  Pyotr Schtein, a famous Russian theater director whose presence on “Poor Anastasia” was supposed to lend prestige to the show; Valery, the “creative producer” (I was never sure what he did on the set except to disapprove of everything I wrote);  and Tony’s interpreter, Katya.

We were watching a scene being shot, in which the two antagonists, Modestovich and Polina, were eavesdropping on a conversation between our heroine and her protector, Baron Korf.  The scene was supposed to be menacing, the audience aware that Polina and Modestovich were threats to heroine Anna.  But Pyotr Schtein was having them play it for laughs.  Jeff and I explained to the director that the actors needed to play the scene more seriously.  Pyotr Schtein spoke at length in Russian to Valery, the creative producer.  Tony turned to Katya for a translation and she said, “Oh, they were talking about the lighting.”

Now, I may not speak Russian very well but I do understand it, and what the director was really telling the creative producer was, “Who do these Americans think they are, coming in here and telling us how to produce a television show?  Why don’t they just go back to America?”

Katya was also transferred to another department.

Finally, spaghetti.  While working on “Poor Anastasia” Sony put me up at the fabulous Grand Hyatt Hotel in Moscow, and their restaurant menu featured spaghetti bolognese.  I love spaghetti bolognese, it’s my all-time favorite dish, I’ve been known to eat it for breakfast, that’s how much I love it.  So, I was eating spaghetti bolognese practically every night and raving about it to the other Americans who were hired by Sony to consult on different aspects of “Poor Anastasia” as well as the Russian adaption of “The Nanny.”

One night, Tony Morina decided he had to see for himself if the Hyatt’s spaghetti bolognese was as wonderful as I kept saying it was.  He ordered it and, to his surprise, received a plate of plain spaghetti with a small bowl of mayonnaise on the side.

Tony ordered spaghetti bolognese but the waitress heard “spaghetti mayonnaise.”

See what I mean by lost in translation!

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