How Hollywood represents foreign speech: a video slide show.

The joy of blockbusters.
Aug. 19 2010 9:59 AM

The Universal Translator

How Hollywood represents foreign speech: a video slide show.

Click here to launch a video slide show on foreign speech in Hollywood movies.

Like many contemporary American films, Eat Pray Love is a casually multilingual affair. After Liz (Julia Roberts) leaves New York for Rome, she makes a point of learning Italian, and director Ryan Murphy depicts her at various stages of comprehension, from a stammering negotiation with her landlady to a breathlessly fluent, restaurant-ordering triumph—accompanied by subtitles as needed. Dwelling on Liz's Italian serves to illustrate her newfound curiosity. It is both realistic and dramatically functional. But when she gets to India and Bali, and becomes preoccupied with spiritual growth, Murphy stops focusing on Liz's language skills. Locals conveniently speak to her in English, and there's nary a subtitle east of Rome.

Since the beginning of Hollywood, filmmakers after an exotic or romantic effect have taken their stories abroad. Since the advent of sound in the late 1920s, this tendency has created a little-discussed problem: 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.

We tend to take language for granted; how foreign speech is handled in film shapes our experience as viewers, usually without our knowing it. The accompanying slide show explores the various ways that filmmakers negotiate foreign speech, highlighting those films that approach the problem as an opportunity to deepen the story.

Advertisement

Click here for a video slide show on foreign speech in Hollywood movies.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.