Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down for Top Five Language and Translation Films

We asked Welocalize’s Louise Law, an avid film aficionado, to share her top five films that feature language and translation. 

Welocalize Louise LawIt is no great secret that I am a film fanatic. A head full of film trivia. After each fix, as a true film buff, I will always Google the film I just watched. I’m also an excellent candidate for all pub-quiz teams.

Having worked in and written about Localization and Translation for a few years now, I thought it was time I combined the two. In no particular order, here are my top 5 films that feature language and translation.

Lost in Translation

Released in 2003, this film revolves around the friendship that ageing movie star Bob (Bill Murray) and college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) strike up whilst both staying separately at a large hotel in Tokyo. I’m not a big fan of Scarlet Johansson, as she seems to have only one expression, but I love Bill Murray. The film does a good job at capturing the loneliness and boredom you can experience when you travel with business and stay in hotels. There are lots of examples throughout the film that shows the language and cultural gap. Here’s a good bit:  Murray’s Bob is filming a commercial for Japanese whiskey, Suntory. He receives instructions, in Japanese, from the director, through an interpreter:

Director [in Japanese, to the interpreter]: The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.

Interpreter [in Japanese, to the director]: Yes, of course. I understand.

Director [in Japanese, to Bob]: Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casanblance saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid,”—Suntory time!

Interpreter [In English, to Bob]: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

Bob: …Is that all he said?

Annie Hall

One of my favorite Woody Allen films, which swept the Oscars in 1977. One of the best scenes features Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton), awkwardly flirting in a rooftop garden in New York. As they talk, “mental subtitles” are shown to explain what the characters are thinking.  Here, they are talking about some of Annie’s photography:

Alvy: They’re (Annie’s pictures) wonderful. They have a quality…

You are a great-looking girl.

Annie: Well, I would like to take a serious photography course.

He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo.

Alvy: The medium enters in as a condition of the art form itself.

I don’t know what I’m saying – she senses I’m shallow.

Annie: Well to me, I mean, it’s, it’s all instinctive. You know, I mean, I just try to feel it. You know, I try to get a sense of it and not think about it so much.

God, I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a shmuck like the others.

A touching and funny example of how men and women do sometimes speak a different language.

ALL Star Wars films (The first trilogy: Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi)

The Star Wars languages and dialects – where to start??? There are so many different languages used in these films. The creativity and level of detail to the characters and plots blows my mind! Basic is the common galactic language but other languages include Bocce, Huttese, the tribal tongue of Ewoks, wookiee language of Shyriiwook. YES, the grunts and squeals of Chewbacca is an official language, albeit a Star Wars one. Apparently, C-3PO is a translator fluent in over a million forms of communication (thank you Wikipedia).

Many, many thanks George Lucas.

Wreck-it Ralph

A lovely Walt Disney animation feature based on various video game characters that inhabit Litwak’s arcade. The main plot focuses on Wreck-It Ralph who, no longer wanting to be the bad guy, abandons his game via the power cables and ends up creating havoc in games Heroes Duty and Sugar Rush. The film contains characters from the Q*bert game. They’re homeless and living a Game Central Station because their game has been unplugged.

Q*bert himself sees Ralph entering the wrong game and communicates this using a “signature synthesized gibberish and word balloon” language from his game called Q*bert-ese. When translating Q*Bert, one of the film’s heroes, Fix-it Felix, admits his Q*bert-ese is “a little rusty”.

Love, Actually

To be honest, actually, I’m not that keen on this film but this is a top five, not a top four. It’s just a bit too cheesy and schmaltzy for me. But, this collection of ten separate stories does feature Christmas, an idyllic London and some cracking tunes so, what’s not to like? Plus, English actor, Colin Firth.

Firth’s character is a writer, who, whilst nurturing a broken heart of course, escapes London and seeks solace at a house in Portugal. Where, he falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia, who speaks only her native tongue. Their scenes are quite touching as neither can understand what the other is saying like Annie Hall, the audience get mental subtitles on what the two are really thinking. But they don’t need words to realise they are in love with each other. And all is well in film-land.

Do you agree or can you suggest other (maybe better) films which feature language and translation? I’d love to hear.


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