The Language Barrier: More Than A Regional Dialect Problem

Sorry Mrs. Hathaway but I guess you are no Dick Van Dyke in One Day!

In this isle of Britain we seem to be obsessed with regional dialects. We construct opinions based on the sounds and cadences they form. Stereotypes can be derived from even a simple €œhullo€. A Liverpudlian accent makes you a thief, a Birmingham accent means you are dull/dim witted, a London accent makes you a geezer! The region and strength of the enunciation can make your brain subconsciously decide whether the accused speaker is friend or foe. This makes delivery of vocabulary in these alternate timbres very powerful. As such, we prize these intonations in language very dearly. So, it was no surprise to me when the people of the United Kingdom were so vehemently offended about a story regarding an American actress trying and failing to replicate the intricate tones of a much cherished regional drawl, made it on to BBC national news, -far beyond the vales and boundaries of the Shire-named-York where this offence was first ruminated. The accused syllable-slandering sinner was Anne Hathaway, who, in One Day delivered a very plumb posh version of a Yorkshire accent. This was so devastating to our great heritage that the news felt that it had to get a vocal coach and Rory Bremner in to demonstrate a Yorkshire accent for us. To which the presenters responded with there own mangled benign attempts at a voice with northern inflection. I imagine clogs, flat caps and Yorkshire puds were flung aplenty. Northern accents aside, I think this brings to light a more pressing issue in film, that we have willfully denied and not bothered to address. Firstly I would like to assure all the Yorkshire men and women that there have been dialects that have had and are having bigger atrocities performed against them, to the point of being completely ignored by the actor/actress portraying the role. What I am jabbering on about is of course is the bastard use in film of English in foreign language roles. The most recent film to draw this to my attention was the heart-wrenching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Set in 1941 Germany it tells the story of a devastating friendship between the 8-year-old German officer€™s son and a Polish boy of the same age trapped the other side of a jagged, spindled, barbwire fence. It is a very powerful film by its own merit, but all the actors are English and thus speak with a very middle class clean English accent. I€™m not a complete moron, I know this was used to make it easier for an English audience to find common ground and connect with the German and Polish characters. But I cannot help but think, would it not of been any better in its native language? Brilliant German/Polish actors like Diane Kruger and Daniel Olbrychski who are masters of there own mother tongue would easily be able to depict the nuances, subtle emotions out of a script. Additionally, I believe the use or conversion to English of these films is damaging to the artistic integrity of the story. I think of it like the old argument of dubbing verses subtitles in kung-fu movies. Dubbing was eventually universally panned as it made the actors look ridiculous and comical. Not unlike the talking animals in the first incarnation of Doctor Doolittle; there lips moving whilst the English dialect is involuntarily spat out of the speakers, but this time with hammy Chinese pronunciation. I for one, for the privilege of narrative coherence and realism, prefer to read the subtitles along the bottom of the screen. Another problem is of course the dreaded remake designed to make the film more accessible to an English speaking audience and also to rake in cash from riding on the hype of the predecessing film. We€™ve all seen the countless number of Japanese horror film remakes, The Ring, The Grudge, Pulse, I have been told many times by friends I would consider horror aficionados, that the Japanese originals, are far more atmospheric, petrifying and jarring. I would put this partially down to the language and the culture of sounds it brings with it. The problem is that Hollywood movies tend to have a completely different way of dealing with foreign nationals. What most American films tend to do when a foreign character is introduced is let the character speak a jot of the language then revert to English for the rest of the picture, even if they€™re getting emotional. When an exasperated Hans Gruber, an alleged German national wants to express his chagrin in Die Hard he does so in English. Would it not have made more sense and the character wholly more terrifying if he had let rip with a staccato blast of incensed German? Maybe this is to much to ask of the action hero trope, but I don€™t think it is of other genres. Just think, would Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d€™Amelie Poulain) have been so rambunctiously romantic expressing its amour for life in our native tongue? Does the artistic, rambling bohemia of Breathless (A bout de soufflé, Jean-Luc Godard) translate as well in the Hollywood version? How would we convert the uniquely quirky comedic stylings of Poland€™s Sexmission (Seksmisja, Juliusz Machulski, 1984)? Or would the cool barren arid world of Mountain Patrol (Kekexili, Chuan Lu, 2004) come across as well if it wasn€™t for the mandarin spoken? The answer is a resounding no. They would not have the same impact on the audience if they weren€™t wrapped in the blanket of acoustic stimuli that their own language naturally delivers. Having said all this, it is not impossible for an American director to successfully blend a myriad of languages into a Hollywood film, as demonstrated gracefully by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds. He even has the brilliant tenacity to deny us subtitles in parts of the film where the protagonist we are following does not speak the language, I think this adds an edge to the film, as you feel as alienated by the conversation as they do. Overall the film is very tongue in cheek but the use of foreign language in the film brings weight and gravitas to the campy blacksploitation style violence. I may be missing the point, but I think that taking a role that is meant to be spoken in Mandarin, Bengali, German, Arabic, Japanese, Urdu, Polish etc and pummelling it until it becomes a English speaking role with a slight twinge of accent is a lazy, blithering, graceless tragedy performed to the films verisimilitude. Although saying this, some actors do get away with it€ Sorry Mrs. Hathaway but I guess you are no Dick Van Dyke.
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An affable but bumbling young chap, currently residing in the West Midlands. With an informal or unsophisticated style of writing musing on film, music, life and other such curios oddities.