The presumption of linguistic ignorance

If I watch a French or a Czech film, it usually has subtitles for whatever languages are spoke on screen. If a character speaks German or Spanish, the words are subtitled.

Most American movies just put a caption [speaks German] or [Speaking Italian], the apparent assumption being that putting the actual words spoken wouldn’t be useful to the audience. Since I can follow better in writing from from hearing words spoken quickly, I find that unhelpful and the assumption itself sad.

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8 Responses to The presumption of linguistic ignorance

  1. Ken Hagler says:

    If it were just a presumption of linguistic ignorance, they could just put an English translation in the caption. I think what you’re seeing is the presumption that nothing a foreigner has to say could possibly be of any interest to an American.

  2. Paul Koning says:

    I don’t remember any movies that do what you describe, but plenty that translate the non-English dialogue.

  3. What you are missing is that this is an intentional act on the part of the director. He doesn’t want you to know what the words being spoken are. There are times in a story where it is preferable not to reveal information to the audience. This is one way to do it.

    The other popular way to do it is the old, “All right guys, this is what we’re going to do…” fade to black, next scene.

  4. Michael F says:

    A big one was Shogun, where they wanted to convey a sense of alienation from a Dutch sailor who, like much of the audience, has no idea what they’re saying about him not two feet away.

    Also, many places farm out subtitles, which leads to incorrect work and/or people who also don’t know what’s being said.

    Do I want foregn language subtitles? Да. Does the market support them? No sé.

    Now, the assumption itself? Dunno. The US is unique in that we can travel for days and still find not just English speakers, but also fellow citizens. Canada and Russia also spring to mind for size, but I don’t know their linguistic homogeny. China’s just isolationist.

    But I’m just me.

  5. Rob K says:

    I think part of it would be if they are actual subtitles versus closed-captioning. I would never expect translation from closed captioning, but I’ve seen plenty of films where non-English speech was translated in subtitles; the original Red Dawn springs to mind as one example. Another part might be how high the film budget was.

    • Paul Koning says:

      Red Dawn wasn’t a high budget film, I believe. And I’ve seen subtitles in obviously low budget films.
      Michael brings up a good point about Shogun. There, the lack of subtitles was clearly intentional and an important part of the story.
      As for homogeneous: Canada is until you get to Quebec. Well, there’s a third language in the far north, which you’ll occasionally see on tri-lingual documents, but I suspect people there know English just fine.
      Even in Europe you can get almost anywhere with English. And if that doesn’t work, German often does (though sometimes you’ll have to make sure the listener knows you’re not German).

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