Foreign Languages in Film

I wanted to share a link to this great video slide show over at Slate about how Hollywood represents foreign languages in film.

How to represent foreign speech? Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.

And if you enjoyed that you will probably also enjoy the discussion about “fake translations” which took place on the linguistic anthropology listserv. Over at the SLA blog (scroll down) Alexandre Enkerli took the time to embed all the videos from that discussion in a single post.

5 thoughts on “Foreign Languages in Film

  1. Perhaps, the degree to which foreign languages are represented on the screen is a reflection of either the director’s (or writer’s) or the audience’s depth of cultural literacy. Certainly such cultural literacy is genre based, so that India often becomes New Dehli rather than Bangalore, while Italy is Rome or Tuscany, as if these urban and rural archetypes were representative of the entire geographical and cultural region. Consider how films use their foreign backgrounds were the director is familiar with the region–I am thinking of The Bourne Identity, an action film that has a Euro-feel to it so often absent from most other films. A variety of languages do makes their appearance in the film, partly for establishing the authenticity of where the action is taking place, and partly to establish Bourne’s character as international spy. Compared with the earlier James Bond films, where Bond rarely speaks anything but English, Matt Damon’s film is a Festsprache of Euro-identity. Perhaps that’s why the first Bourne film has a somewhat artsy feel to it, as its performance of foreign languages on screen signal it as “artfilm.” That the film was also quite commerically successful attests to its also belonging to the genre of action film (its star power with Matt Damon helped propel it), but we can see in the latter 2 films of the series that action began to dominate, while its foreignness was reduced to mere backdrop (the background began to take on more and more the “painted backdrop” of less ambitious films (the regular examples of the spy-film genre).

    Does Julia Robert’s new film reflect a familiarity of Italy based on the director’s knowledge, or the cultural literacy of the audience (or the audience’s easy association of Italy with archetypal locations)? The audience’s literacy may also arise not from Italy itself, but from a cinematic knowledge of “Italy” which includes films from multiple genres. If only Bollywood was far more popular for mainstream audiences, we might then get a scene with Roberts trying to speak Kannada.

  2. but see the role of language in this (US aired) skittles ad. no doubt smarter than most ethnographic treatments;

  3. I’m always irked when a movie is linguistically inconsistent. A prime example of this is The Hunt for Red October, where Sean Connery and the Russian sailors begin the movie speaking in Russian with English subtitles. Then in later scenes on the Russian sub, the characters are all speaking in English with Russian accents. It’s like the director decided that after establishing that they were all Russians it was okay to give the audience a break and not make them read all those subtitles.

  4. The Hunt for Red October is exactly what I thought of upon initially reading this post! That scene is so laughable. On the other hand, I found the treatment of the foreign language issue in Valkyrie to be surprisingly effective.

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