Foreign Speech in American Cinema

Friday, September 17, 2010


One of Hollywood’s greatest conundrums is how to represent foreign speech in American films. Film makers have come up with a variety of creative ways to depict foreign languages. Eric Hynes, film critic for, 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.

Comments [10]


Hynes on audience attitudes: "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."

This is why I hate when shows like On the Media and Brian Lehrer do light culture pieces. They let statements like that go by unquestioned because we're all supposed to be having fun listening to Slate writers gab about popular entertainment. It's too bad Attack Dog Garfield (and I mean that as a compliment) didn't ask Hynes how many years it took for audiences to get accustomed to hearing spoken language in the performing arts - not to mention in everyday life! Hynes says throughout the piece that a film can make an accent work if it seems to fit into the fiction - that is, if there's a logic to it that we can accept. But he seems to think that this is a contemporary attitude that eluded the more inexperienced audiences of the movies - who were, by the way, pretty used hearing voices on the radio by then.

Love the show. Hate these kinds of segments.

Sep. 21 2010 07:40 PM
Patrick Hothersall from Chicago

I think the most distracting accent was Kevin Costner's in Robin Hood. Everyone else in the movie had an accent, except for Robin Hood who sounds like he grew up near Chicago.

Perhaps his English accent was so distracting that the director just decided to let it go.

Sep. 21 2010 06:12 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

The two films that ran through my head while thinking of this report were, first, the scene where the Lakota couple, in their sleeping robes, discuss whether Stands With A Fist would be a good mate for Dances With Wolves. No U.S. could get that in Lakota, subtitled. Then, I remembered being entirely capable of ignoring the subtitles while watching George Depardieu in Cyrano.

A copy of the play, inscribed to my mother by a rival of my father, had always fascinated me from the time I could read and to finally hear it in the language it was written brought serious tears to my eyes, even though that is one language in which I had no schooling. Cyrano, I know by heart!

Sep. 21 2010 04:20 AM
Just a Thought

In Mel Brook's "To Be or Not Be" they have fun with this where he and Anne Bancroft start off singing and speaking Polish and the narrator suddenly annouces "For the sake of clarity and sanity, the rest of this film will not be in Polish"

Sep. 19 2010 07:00 PM
christa hillhouse from omaha NE

i prefer authentic languages and the use of subtitles to the use of english language with accents. i loved and appreciated quentin terrantino's use of different languages in "inglorious bastards" .. if he would have just directed the actors to use accents the movie would have completely flopped. for me, accents (as opposed to use of authentic languages) more often than not make the movie unbelievable. i found tom cruise's performance in "valkyrie" ridiculous and unwatchable.

Sep. 19 2010 02:16 PM
Lisa from New York

In your piece you include a clip of of Kristen Dunst in the role of Marie Antoinette writing her brother and comment on the absence of a French accent. This is confusing in a few ways: 1) If MA were writing her brother wouldn't she write in Austrian or German? In which casea French accent makes no sense. 2) if she is speaking in a language in which she is fluent, why would her dialogue require an accent? The idea that someone speaking in their own language to another also fluent in that language would be represented by an accented English makes no sense to me.

Sep. 19 2010 12:48 PM
Christopher Fredrick Gautz from Pomona, Ca

For me an interesting use of accents could be heard in "I Claudius". Where the imperial family might have a prim and proper english accent and a roman foot soldier a cockney accent. Of course what would a first century latin accent sound like.

Sep. 18 2010 05:10 PM
John Farr

It's better not to attempt an accent than attempt one that fails on you.

As with "Shop", audiences will forgive if the everything else works. Look at Burt Lancaster in "The Train".

What annoys me most are when British actors are cast as Americans ans vice-versa. I find it distracting. (Witness Brendan Gleeson in "Green Zone".)

John Farr

Sep. 18 2010 11:00 AM
drora kemp from north nj

One aspect that was not discussed is dubbing, which is odious, akin to colorizing. (There is a story - an urban legend, I hope - about Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman failing miserably in the US until it was released in a dubbed version, when it became a big hit.)
Adding insult to injury, dubbed movies have characters speak English with native accents. I remember watching a recording of the Japanese movie Onibaba in a dubbed version, with the English-speaking actors faking a Japanese accent. It was so distracting that I stopped watching and then had to wait for years until I found a subtitled movie.
Any comments? Have American movie goers changed since A Man and a Woman? Why are foreign movies still a category apart wherever DVDs are sold?

Sep. 18 2010 08:25 AM
ethan from brooklyn

in my opinion, brad pitt's irish accent wasn't that bad, although i couldn't tell a northern from a southern. his austrian accent in "7 years in tibet" is another story. hall of accent shame should start with costner's "robin hood," julian moore's boston accent on "30 Rock," and her english accent in "big lebowski," william hurt's occasional brooklyn accent in "smoke." for some perfect american accents by a brit and an aussie, look no further than rose byrne and anastasia griffith on the FX show "damages."

Sep. 18 2010 08:00 AM

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