The Law of Conservation of Language

In film school, you are taught to look out for certain things to make sure your audience is able to follow what’s going on. Things like making sure Joe’s shirt has the same number of buttons done up in scene 6 as scene 5, or making sure that when a scene is happening at night, it’s not suddenly a sunny afternoon outside. These rules all centre around something called continuity – the act of making sure things are consistent and that they make sense. But there’s a kind of continuity that nobody ever talks about in class or reads about in books, and that’s language continuity. 

Despite Quentin Tarantino’s au-naturel approach to Inglourious Basterds, a film coloured with an array of languages and dialects, not to mention a liberal smattering of subtitles, the common tactic of mainstream cinema is to switch out one language for another for the sake of simplicity. That way, a movie like Enemy at the Gates, where the characters are all either Russian or German, we can understand them without subtitles by simply having them speak English. It’s just an easy way of opening up a film to a broader North American audience. But beware: if you’re going to do it, you need to observe a few simple rules:

Maintain Your Accent

If you’re using an accent to make it seem like you’re at least putting on a foreign air (ever notice how the Romans always sound like Welshmen?), use it consistently – don’t pull a Kevin Costner and slip in and out of your accent when it gets too tough.  If you’re not even gong to bother with an accent, at least learn to pronounce certain words and names properly, like your own. There were so many things wrong with The Musketeer, but at the most basic level, we were dealing with a main character who couldn’t even pronounce his name properly. I mean, he’s performing opposite Catherine Deneuve for chrissakes – show some respect!

Don’t Muddle Your Languages

Another problem present in The Musketeer (and this is key) is that even though they switched out French for English – there are still background actors speaking French. That kind of slip in continuity would seem to indicate that the main characters really are speaking English for the benefit of the audience while everyone else on screen carries on with their foreign language lives as per usual. What am I supposed to take away from that? That characters are actually speaking English for my benefit and would have otherwise been speaking French if they didn’t have a camera in their face?

While Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie might have done an admirable job of immersing us in Tom Cruise’s correspondence to the point that German became English, they slipped up when they had nightclub singers performing German songs for patrons. If you’ve switched out German for English, there are no German songs anymore.

This also goes for Star Trek. The writers get around their little language dilemma with the use of a “Universal Translating Device” that appears to work almost as well as a Babel Fish. That’s why Klingons, Vulcans, Humans and Romulans all speak English for all the Trekkies out there. Well, if that’s the case, then nobody would be able to actually say any words in any other language – they’d only be heard in English anyway. So when Picard says something cool in Klingon (or even in French!) I say “pas de chance”.

Pick a System – Stick To It

There are many movies that do a great job at handling the language barrier. The Hunt for Red October, despite having a pre-30 Rock Alec Baldwin as the second most forgettable Jack Ryan of all time, does a great job of switching out Russian for English right up until the Americans board the Russian sub and suddenly Sean Connery is speaking with subtitles. They pick a system and stick with it.

Another movie that breaks down the cultural barriers properly is The 13th Warrior. Again, not the finest example of cinematic majesty (although, believe it or not, it’s a reinterpretation of the Beowulf story), but it does a handy job of explaining how everyone can speak the same language.  It begins with Omar Sharif and Antonio Banderas being the only ones speaking English (when they’re actually speaking either Farsi or Arabic) and the Vikings they’re drinking with are all speaking Old Norse. Once Banderas’ character is able to sit down and listen to them speak for a while, eventually they start speaking English. While in actuality what is happening is he is learning to speak their language, the effect is no less clever.

So if movies of this calibre are able to come up with clever ways to break the language barrier, it’s not too much to expect that some of the heavier hitters out there should be able to find their way as well. It would seem that directors want it both ways: Digestible non-subtitled dialogue for the masses, and meticulous attention to detail in the background for the connoisseurs. But having main characters speak English while in the background players still speak the local dialect makes the stars foreigners in their own country, instead of making the audience feel like locals. 

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