World Cinema: Lost in translation?

In our latest world cinema column, our trip around the globe in 80 films continues, and there's a look at the pitfalls of adapting scripts into English...

It’s a discussion I have animatedly several times. I have been talking/lecturing/droning on about a non-English language film and somebody has told me that they don’t bother watching them as they don’t like reading subtitles and/or it means they can’t see what’s happening onscreen.

It is an argument against film which absolutely infuriates me. Someone won’t watch a film because the act of reading is too much for them? It’s the height of laziness. Does reading put someone off a book, or looking at the bloody Internet?

Amazingly, the human brain can cope with more than one stimulus at a time, so it’s an argument which doesn’t have any value whatsoever. These people are wilfully ignoring a whole world of film, which may not all be to their taste, but will surely provide, in one film, the satisfaction that English language film has provided them.

However, people are afraid of the unknown, so perhaps the not wanting to read subtitles is the easy way of saying they don’t want to leave their comfort zone, or learn about other cultures. Either way, it’s a habit which I wish they would break out of, and discover just how much is out there, and then perhaps we won’t have trailers for films which don’t have any dialogue, for fear of putting off potential audiences. (The Girl Who Played With Fire, I’m looking at you!)

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However, there is a flipside to this. For those who enjoy watching films with subtitles, do we forgive them too much? Does a bad script look better when written on screen rather than delivered by actors in a language you are able to understand?

Pieces of heartfelt wisdom which I have thought as profound a sentiment as I have ever heard have occasionally been revealed to be, well, a bit trite when said out loud. It’s a danger that all translated art forms face. A bad translation of a novel may kill its chances in a market.

Unfortunately, it seems impossible to tell, unless you are lucky enough to be fluent in the language of the film (in which case why are you reading the subtitles?) and can hear how the line is meant to be delivered. The only way we can tell, I suppose, is waiting until a director makes his English language debut and seeing how it holds up.

A case in point is with my absolute favourite director in the world, Wong Kar-wai, a seeming genius with devastating emotional observations throughout his Hong Kong career, his English debut My Blueberry Nights was, at times, painful and clichéd. Here’s the following quote from his masterpiece 2046:

“Let’s see each other again. Then, if you think we shouldn’t be together, tell me so frankly… That day, six years ago, a rainbow appeared in my heart. It’s still there, like a flame burning inside me. But what are your real feelings for me? Are they like a rainbow after the rain? Or did that rainbow fade away long ago?”

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Ah, isn’t that poetic and beautiful? Reading that onscreen was a delight. Now, here’s the following from My Blueberry Nights:

“A few years ago, I had a dream. It began in the summer and was over by the following spring. In between, there were as many unhappy nights as there were happy days. Most of them took place in this café. And then one night, a door slammed and the dream was over.”

Looks equally good, yes? Now imagine it coming out of Jude Law’s mouth complete with the worst Manchester accent committed to film. Yep, it was terrible and made me doubt all his other scripts!

The problems with this approach are numerous. Not least is the fact that you cannot really judge a person’s first foray into an unfamiliar language, especially when he was coupled with a writer not known for his poignant soliloquies (mystery writer, Lawrence Block). However, it is worth keeping in mind that not everything you read translates well!

Continuing my filmic tour of the world, here’s the next five beauties designed to give you a flavour of just what’s out there. This time I’m heading to Africa…

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Going to Egypt, witness the social problems of the Naseer government with hard hitting drama Adrift On The Nile. Although made in 1971, it is still relevant today, and features the escape of the disaffected poor of Egypt through drug abuse.

Egypt was the first country to invent cement, which may or not have any bearing on the amount of hashish smoked in the film.


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Moving across to Algeria, the stand-out candidate is the mighty The Battle Of Algiers, an incredible account of the war against French colonial rule. Neither side is spared in its unflinching portrayal of the realities of war, and its subsequent critical acclaim is testament to this. In fact, it is the only film to be nominated for an Oscar in non-consecutive years, 1966 and 1968.


Heading to Mali, it is well worth checking out Guimba The Tyrant. A dramatic comedy, the film draws heavily on tribal traditions to tell its tale of the titular tyrant, whether through use of a village elder/historian to tell the story, or through its music.

Visually inventive and rewarding, it is also a subtle satire on Malian dictator Moussa Traoré.


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Next stop is Ghana where 1993’s Sankofa is my recommendation. A time travelling tale of a woman sent back into the past to confront slavery and injustice, it is a powerful look at a subject which has blighted this country and, indeed, the entire region.

Modern day Ghana is often held up as an African success story, so it is extremely interesting to see how it views itself onscreen.


Finally, this week we come to Nigeria. Colloquially known as Nollywood, Nigeria is, in actual fact, the second biggest film industry in the world in terms of production, with only India ahead. Most of this is due to the massive home video market, with recent developments in digital filmmaking fuelling the boom.

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However, there is also a large theatrical market and Nigeria provided last year’s winner of the African Movie Academy Awards Best Film, with The Figurine. A thriller telling the story of a sculpture which provides seven years of good and then bad luck, it has proven a breakout hit on the continent, and is proof that there is far more to World Cinema than art films!

In Cinemas

The Horde

This French release promises a battle between zombies, gangsters and police, which is always nice. It also promises a whole host of ultra-violence, which is what you really want from a zombie film, to be honest. The last French zombie film I watched was Mutants, which was absolutely cack. So, fingers crossed…

Released: 17th September

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