BOB GARFIELD: One of Hollywood’s greatest conundrums is how to represent foreign speech in American films. Filmmakers have to toe the line between verisimilitude and being able to attract an audience that might not be interested in reading subtitles for two hours. To do so, filmmakers have, over the history of the movie industry, come up with a variety of creative ways to depict foreign languages. Eric Hynes, film critic for Slate.com, says that the way a foreign language is depicted in a film can fundamentally alter the way a story is told, and the way the audience perceives both characters and place.
ERIC HYNES: At the end of the day, you’re serving the story one way or the other. And the films in the thirties, forties and fifties were a little bit more lax about it. Like a film that I discussed, The Shop Around the Corner, is set in Budapest, and yet everybody speaks as if they're from different neighborhoods in New York. I don't think the audience really cares because the writing is so good and the characters are so well drawn.
ACTOR: Still hanging around the shop, eh, Mr. Matuschek?
FRANK MORGAN AS HUGO MATUSCHEK: Yeah.
ACTOR: Can’t get away from here.
FRANK MORGAN AS HUGO MATUSCHEK: [CHUCKLES] Well, you better hurry home, son. You are - you’re probably celebrating Christmas with your mother and father. Am I wrong?
ACTOR: Yes, Mr. Matuschek. See that girl over there on the corner?
FRANK MORGAN AS HUGO MATUSCHEK: Yeah.
ACTOR: Well, I’m her Santa Claus. Good night, Mr. Matuschek.
ERIC HYNES: You know, 60, 70 years ago, audiences were sort of more able to accept that kind of leap because they're coming out of sort of a silent tradition where you’re not hearing language one way or the other.
BOB GARFIELD: Sixty-some years after The Shop Around the Corner, director Sofia Coppola made Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst, and made a similar choice.
KIRSTEN DUNST AS MARIE ANTOINETTE: Oh, my brother, I'm devastated by the news of our mother’s death. You alone are left to me in Austria, which is and will always be so dear to me. I embrace you.
ERIC HYNES: The first instinct is to say, how come there’s no French accents? Why is nobody speaking in French? Yet, I think in this case that her dramatic choice is an interesting one because Kirsten Dunst is basically playing Kirsten Dunst, because she’s playing a sort of sheltered starlet. So I think dramatically it actually makes a bit of sense.
BOB GARFIELD: If using the foreign language is out of the question, there are ways to suggest foreign, and accents is, I guess, the key one. But even that is done several different ways. For example, for some reason, an English accent is considered a universal substitute.
ERIC HYNES: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some examples?
ERIC HYNES: The most recent example is Prince of Persia, which, on one hand, it’s absolutely absurd to hear Jake Gyllenhaal speak in this attempted upper-crust British accent, even though he’s playing a prince of Persia, and yet it kinda of works. We hear this storybook Old English, and that does sort of stand in, for an American audience, for just about anything that’s not American. And for certain stories, that’s kind of all you need. You don't need for this teenage fantasy film to be historically accurate. You just need to sort of convey a sense of foreignness. And to American ears, at least, an English accent serves that purpose.
BOB GARFIELD: Can we talk about the accents of the British Empire?
ERIC HYNES: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: So many American actors have just gone down in flames -
ERIC HYNES: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: - trying to be British, to be Australian, to be Irish.
ERIC HYNES: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have a Hall of Shame?
ERIC HYNES: Brad Pitt in a movie called The Devil’s Own with Harrison Ford, in which he plays a Northern Irish terrorist with just a horrendous Northern Irish accent.
BRAD PITT AS RORY DEVANEY: You’re a stupid man, Mr. Burke. You’re only seeing me standin’ between you and the money, but you’re forgetting about the thousand other men standing behind me. Are you with me there, luv?
BOB GARFIELD: I want to talk about the flip side of it, which is when foreign actors appear in American films -
ERIC HYNES: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - as American characters and are simply incapable of pulling it off. I'm thinking, for example, of Michael Caine in a movie called The Weather Man.
MICHAEL CAINE AS ROBERT SPRITZEL: I thought you were trying to improve matters with Noreen, if not reconcile.
NICHOLAS CAGE AS DAVE SPRITZ: I am. What did Frost say?
MICHAEL CAINE AS ROBERT SPRITZEL: He wants to speak to me in about ten minutes. Would you get me a coffee, Dave, so I can warm up?
BOB GARFIELD: Why do directors make these casting decisions?
ERIC HYNES: I guess you’re thinking on some level Michael Caine is the best actor we can get. We want him in our film. He can help our film. He can help market our film. But the idea that you’re going to ask the sort of audience to sort of accept that kind of leap, for there to be this tonal disconnect throughout the entire film, even though it’s Michael Caine and you want to see him, the story kind of falls apart.
BOB GARFIELD: Some movies actually split the difference by having characters who are multilingual. Recent examples: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The German villain, Hans Landa, speaks French, Italian, German and English throughout the film, but they always manage to make the English language dialogue organic to the story.
ERIC HYNES: Tarantino’s just a master at this. I think Inglourious Basterds, from first to last, is this master class on how to sort of use language as an opportunity dramatically. That Hans Landa character, throughout, he uses his multilingual abilities as his greatest weapon. That first scene of the film, what seems like a protracted Tarantino delaying tactic, is actually completely dramatically essential. He uses his bilingual abilities to sort of ensnare his prey.
BOB GARFIELD: Are there films that have actually addressed the language issue by being transparent about the problem the filmmaker faces?
ERIC HYNES: Traditionally, what’s interesting is that a lot of comedies have been the films that sort of most directly address the problems of foreign speech, or at least call attention to the absurdities of translation and subtitling. Like The Great Dictator, eight years after the advent of sound, is already having great fun with the idea of translation, ‘cause this dictator is speaking a total gibberish version of German, and there is this sort of sober off-screen translator translating what he’s saying.
CHARLES CHAPLIN AS ADENOID HYNKEL: Democracy shtunk.
OFF-SCREEN TRANSLATOR: Democracy is fragrant.
CHARLES CHAPLIN AS ADENOID HYNKEL: Liberty shtunk.
OFF-SCREEN TRANSLATOR: Liberty is odious.
CHARLES CHAPLIN AS ADENOID HYNKEL: Freeschprecken shtunk.
OFF-SCREEN TRANSLATOR: Freedom of speech is objectionable.
CHARLES CHAPLIN AS ADENOID HYNKEL: [GERMAN/GIBBERISH]
BOB GARFIELD: To your mind, what do you think is the best solution to maintain verisimilitude, or at least to prolong the willing suspension of disbelief?
ERIC HYNES: I think that it does come down to how successfully the film works on its own terms. And I think if you can sell what you’re doing on your own terms, the audience will go with you. To me, like even a film like The Shop Around the Corner, I, I find not even remotely problematic because there is no doubt that there is a reality that’s being inhabited onscreen. And that’s what I want to see.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric, I thank you very much.
ERIC HYNES: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Hynes is a writer and film critic for Slate.com.