Ku spoken, but only here

Times Staff Writer

There’s good reason why the African language Nicole Kidman speaks in the new thriller “The Interpreter” sounds foreign to the ear -- it exists only in the reel world.

The fictional language, Ku, was created for the Sydney Pollack-directed film by Said el-Gheithy, the head of the Centre for African Language Learning in London. “This was a whole new challenge,” says El-Gheithy. “They had specific requirements. There was a section of the dialogue in the script that needed to be in Ku. Sydney indicated his preferred choice of languages. He said he wanted a language that would [sound familiar] to someone from Eastern Africa or Southern Africa.”

In “The Interpreter,” Kidman plays a U.N. translator who was born in the troubled African country of Matobo -- a nation that is also a figment of the imagination. Pollack said he conjured up a country and a language because dealing with a real country can be thorny.


“You can’t do what you want to do, you have to do only what’s authentic,” Pollack said. “You can’t say what you want to say for dramatic purposes -- you get yourself in trouble with an organization like the United Nations where in a sense every participating member has an equal position within the United Nations. I think, oddly enough, it is more believable when [something] is fictional than when it is true.”

Once a fictional country was in place, Pollack had to figure out what type of accent to give Kidman when she speaks in English.

“The question was that almost every African country was at one time or another a colony of whether it be Belgium, England or Germany,” Pollack said. “We had all of these possibilities. Who were the original colonizers of Matobo? And therefore what would a white Matobian accent be like? Nicole worked hard with a dialogue coach to find what we are going to call Southern Africa sound -- a cross between Australian and South Africa.”

El-Gheithy chose the Bantu languages as the basis for Ku. But first, he had to envision Matobo as a country somewhere in the south of Africa, “bordering somewhere between Zimbabwe and Tanzania.”

Africans from that area will recognize the language, he says, “but will be slightly confused” by the new structure he gave Ku. “The Bantu language is identified by the use of prefixes or indicators that are used at the start of the word or subject matter.”

But with Ku, he put the prefix/indicator at the end of the word. “Then I created tenses and so on. Throughout the process the speech emerged.”


He also developed customs and traditions for his new language.

“For example, with greetings, instead of shaking hands these people would touch one’s forehead, a gentle touch. In some African languages, the forehead is actually a metaphor for talent, something rich.”

And instead of following the African tradition of women speaking after men, Matobian women speak first and “speak without inhibitions. The women would not be shy.”

All in all, El-Gheithy created about 500 words in Ku. And he even gives a quick lesson in Ku over the phone:

Kwambuu means how are you, sonna is hello, digai is bye and tenane translates into thanks.

Once he created the words for the scenes that featured Ku, El-Gheithy recorded them.

The tapes were sent to the voice coach who, in turn, would learn the words and pronunciations and teach them to the actors.

“I would provide the dialogue, the pronunciation guide and a word list,” he said. “Literally, I had to create everything from scratch. I had to give a sense of reality to the language. It is not just a translation exercise. It is a language, structure and comprehensible speech.”

Ku, he adds, is a verbose, dense language: “Actually, in traditional Ku, ordinary conversation should inspire the elegance of poetry. This is why I think when Nicole was sometimes translating she was rather hesitant because she had had to leave out the eloquence and the poetry of Ku for the sake of clarity.”