March 06, 2006

Mel's Mayan mischief

On last night's Oscar broadcast, we finally learned what Mel Gibson meant when he said he wanted to make Mayan languages "cool again." That's what was reported when news first got out that his latest movie venture, Apocalypto, would be a historical epic shot on location in Mexico with a cast of locals speaking only Yucatec Maya, the indigenous language of the Yucatán Peninsula. In the silly pre-ceremony video segment last night, Mel contributed some footage showing him and his cast members speaking in Yucatec Maya with humorous (?) English subtitles.

If you didn't get to see the video that kicked off the ceremonies, you can watch it on YouTube (the bit with Gibson starts about a minute and a half into the clip). The announcer introduces a series of would-be hosts, but everyone (including previous hosts Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, and David Letterman) begs off with various excuses. Then we hear, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mel Gibson!" and we see Mel (no longer sporting his scary beard) at the shooting location for Apocalypto, walking through what appears to be a limestone quarry. Behind him is a line of male cast members wearing loincloths, their skin covered in limestone powder. If you caught the cryptic wordless trailer for the movie, you know the look.

So the joke, such as it is, has Gibson speaking at length in Yucatec Maya, but the subtitles simply say "Not... me." (The long-speech-with-short-subtitles gag was already getting tired when Mike Myers did it with Cantonese in Wayne's World.) Then the line of Mayan men speak in unison, with a subtitle reading "Not us!" The bit ends with the head of a black panther popping inexplicably into the screen and Mel and his cast members running away screaming. (The panther was in the trailer too, though see here about the implausibility of using this type of wildcat in the film.)

I'm in no position to judge Gibson's Yucatec proficiency, but it does appear that he was trying to say something meaningful (as opposed to, say, the natives' gibberish in the original King Kong). After perusing some online resources in Yucatec Maya, I've been able to determine that Mel's last line — repeated by the cast members behind him — is "Ma tene," which does indeed mean "Not me." You can find the phrase used in a transcribed folk tale, with English translation, accompanying "A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language" by David and Alejandra Bolles. (The tale is of "Juan Thul, The Trickster Rabbit," a character strikingly like Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories.)

It's not too surprising that Gibson would strive for serious use of Yucatec Maya even in a light-hearted sketch for the Oscars. Last Friday, Time published a story in its online edition where Gibson revealed that he would be speaking Maya on the Oscar broadcast. (This is just a teaser for a longer article in a forthcoming issue of Time, which got an "exclusive peek" at the filming of Apocalypto.) The online piece notes "the obvious care that has been taken with costumes, sets and the dialect-correct language," which "suggests the kind of cultural attention filmdom has rarely if ever accorded the Mayas, who were the Greeks of the New World." (That's a line attributed to the archeologist Sylvanus Morley.)

Mel may be dutifully learning the "dialect-correct language" for the film, but that won't stop Yucatec Maya from being exoticized whenever it gets mentioned in the English-language press. As before, the latest round of media attention has painted Yucatec as both "ancient" (see here, here, and here) and "obscure" (see here, here, and here), when it is actually neither. It's a living language of about a million speakers, but it's getting treated as if it were some sort of quaint museum piece. (Granted, Gibson may be trying to approximate an archaic version of Yucatec Maya, since his film takes place 600 years ago, but so far we've had no indication that the language used on the set is anything but modern.) The supposed "ancientness" of the film's language fulfills a specific need for media commentators: to portray Gibson as something of a kook who keeps making films in weird dead languages like Aramaic. But from what I can tell, Gibson is fully playing into the media's exoticization of the language — and Mayan cultures in general — for his own purposes, whatever they may be. Why else would he shoot his little Oscar piece, completely decontextualized from anything that might explain why he was speaking that odd-sounding language in front of those odd-looking people?

(Oh, and did I mention the movie has human sacrifices?)

[Update #1: Apropos of too-terse Maya translations, Steve of Language Hat sends this along:

I thought I'd pass on this bit which struck me yesterday when I was finishing Nelson Reed's fascinating 1964 book The Caste War of Yucatan (the war began in 1847-48 and tailed off for decades); the author is making a trip to Yucatan in 1959 to round out his research for the book and interview anyone who might have personal knowledge of the events of the early part of the century, and he's met an old gent named Don Norberto Yeh:

"My next question, Did he remember the time of General Bravo [who conquered the independent Maya 1899-1912], brought a long, explosive diatribe (and Maya can be very explosive) which was translated, 'The Señor says Yes.'"

Well, Mel Gibson has said that he's done extensive reading on Mayan history, so who knows — maybe he lifted his joke from Nelson Reed!

Mark Liberman adds a similar anecdote involving English-to-French translation:

Almost 20 years ago, when we were aligning two languages the Canadian Hansards for use in MT research, we found that where the English version had a multiple-paragraph eulogy of some local dignitary, read into the record by his representative — "Beloved husband, supportive father, founder of this, pillar of that, etc., etc." — the French version would often have just four words: "M. ___ est mort."

I don't recall have seen the same thing going the other way, which may have been because there were simply fewer eulogies to translate from French to English, or perhaps because the Eng->Fr translation service was less stressed overall.

[Update #2: Language Hat now has a post up about this, in which he mentions another too-terse-translation bit: the Suntory scene in Lost in Translation ("Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that").]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 6, 2006 10:10 AM