Writing Foreign Language Dialogue - Complications Ensue
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Friday, December 21, 2007

Q. When a movie is written primarily in English but certain scenes call for characters to speak in other languages, how is this usually denoted in a script? Assuming the writer and most of the people who would read the script only know English, would the writer just add parenthetical under the character?
Anything that is clear will work. I do one of two things:

When characters are speaking in a foreign language, and we're supposed to know what they're saying, but either (a) I don't know the language and/or (b) the audience won't be able to make anything out from the language, then I just put it in parentheses. For example Japanese.

Where some part of the audience might appreciate the original -- say the foreign language is French or Spanish -- and I can generate it myself, then I create another Final Draft "element" called "Subtitles," based on the Dialogue element. Subtitles is smaller type, sometimes a different color. I write the actual dialog in the foreign language, and put the translation in the subtitles.

That's what we did on BON COP / BAD COP, which was half in very funny French, and meant for both French and English audiences. It is also what I did on MEDIEVAL, my medieval zombie horror comedy. The undead knights were speaking Old Provençal for a bit, until they realized our heros spoke French; then they switched into Old French. Francophone audiences will be able to make some of the Old Provençal out, without really understanding it; they'll probably grasp most of the Old French. Non-francophones can just read the subtitles.

This technique allows for some fun throwaway jokes. In the horror comedy I'm writing right now, I have two French Canadian characters who say incredibly rude things in French to the other characters, who don't speak any French. The incredibly rude things don't get subtitles. Heh. You could do the same thing in the States, where all the Latinos would laugh at your Spanish jokes.

If I don't want the audience to know what the character is saying (unless they speak the language), then I just write the language and don't translate it.

Or you can just go back to the old school technique, where the Germans all speak English, but with posh accents.

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2 Comments:

Sounds like in Firefly/Serenity when the characters would curse in Chinese.

By Blogger The_Lex, at 11:53 AM  

You could do what Cormac McCarthy does, which is have one character speak English and the other speak a different language (Spanish, in McCarthy's books). You get a gist of the conversation but the other-tongued speaker comes off as mysterious and threatening.

See also John Sayles' CASA DE LOS BABIES. Two characters yell at each other in Eng/Spanish. Despite the language barrier, you get what the scene's about.

Tim

By Blogger Tim, at 12:04 AM  

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