Foreign language mistakes in movies/books

DISCLAIMER: any language mistakes or typos in this post are to be attributed to

a) the fact that I am not a native English speaker
b) Gaudere’s law
c) both

Seriously - zillions of dollars are spent in the production of movies like “Gladiator”. Authors research for years for their novels. I understand that Hollywood movies or novels are mostly not 100% accurate (historically or otherwise). But why are there so many mistakes when foreign languages are concerned?

Examples (just off of the top of my head)

  • any German/Nazi background dialogue is usually gibberish
  • shouts of Germanic warriors in the opening of Gladiator are incorrect German (not to mention that the Germanic people did not speak German)
  • most of the German lines in Gary Jennings’ novel “Spangle” are at least partly wrong (and the guy is supposed to do a year of research for every book)

These are examples where German is used - since I only speak German and English (intelligibly, anyway) I can only talk about these languages. I am sure there are more examples for other languages.

Now my questions:

Why does this happen so often? Do moviemakers and writers simply not care? Do they not know whom to ask? Do they look stuff up in babelfish?

Should I just chill, because it’s no big deal or am I right in being peeved because of this sloppy research?

And what mistakes with foreign languages in a movie or book do you know?

They assume that only the most anal retentive of fanboys would bother to care about it.

I had a poli sci textbook that translated a German anti-Turkish slogan as “Turks go home!” when even I, with my limited German skills, could tell that it really meant something closer to “Out with the Turks!” I think that’s a significant difference in meaning, and was surprised that a textbook hadn’t done a better job of translating.

This probably isn’t what you’re talking about, but the one that annoys me the most is the scene in Die Hard when Hans (a German who has been speaking German on and off throughout the film) tells Karl (ostensibly another German, sense he is the main one Hans has been speaking to in German throughout the film) to “shoot the glass” in German, possibly even repeats it in German, then has to tell him in English to be understood.

In Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor (the one where we go to war with Japan), there are good number of mistakes when he tries to write in Japanese. My personal favorite was when a baddie alludes to the impending war and the Japanese-American spy, instead of saying wakarimasen (say what?), says wakaremasen (I will never leave you).

The fact that they’re both naked and sitting in a tub together probably adds to the effect.

Speaking of Gladiator, I’ve been told that the character name “Cicero” should have been pronounced “KEE-Ke-ro.”

I’m sure I’ll think of a million of 'em once I’ve thought about it a bit.

In movies, when Japanese are talking in the background, it makes sense 99% of the time.

I can’t think of any movies off the top of my head where the lead characters suddenly start speaking Japanese.

Sometimes the subtitles don’t match what is actually being said, but I put that down to space restraints and the inability to directly translate stuff from English to Japanese.

Mr and I went to see “Independence Day” in the theatre here in Japan. We were obviously the only ones there who were listening to the actors and not reading the subtitles because there were scenes where we were pissing ourselves laughing and the rest of the patrons were just staring at us with blank looks on their faces.

Well, considering that the film features Romans speaking English, I can’t get too upset about whether the language of the German warriors was accurate.

One should perhaps add that this problem is not restricted to American-made films. Sometimes, films from other countries feature English-speaking characters who are awkward and stilted, if not outright ungrammatical. The reason is obvious:

The majority of the intended audience is not going to notice or care.

steve biodrowski

Not only is it not correct German, but in one scene where the tribesmen can be heard chanting in the background, it’s obvious that the chant was lifted directly from the movie Zulu!


So according to some replies the reason is

a) they don’t care
b) they think nobody will notice anyway

Well, if they did not care at all, they probably wouldn’t even try to get it right and just use complete foreign-sounding gibberish. But as far as I can tell they do try, they just do not get the info from the right sources. Foreign language dialogue in movies/books is usually used to add some authentic and/or exotic flavour. If you plan to do that, why shoot yourself in the foot and get a crappy translation from some hack OR (even worse in my eyes, as I am a translator) get a real translator to do this but don’t give him/her the correct and full context so the translation will be shitty anyway.

Also, when producing a movie featuring, say, some badly translated Italian or Japanese dialogue, do the writers not think about what will happen when that movie is shown in Italy/Japan? Apparently not…

I don’t think it’s a matter of being an anal-retentive fanboy. Were the mistake in the original English dialogue (and obviously not done on purpose), would that annoy only fanboys? If Arnold S. as Terminator said “I’ll be front!” or “I’ll be in the back!” all the time, wouldn’t that bother people?

And Caesar should have been pronounced “Kai (eye)-ser”… but then, if they’re speaking English, we shouldn’t hold them to Latin pronunciations…

I think it was in the beginning of Swordfish where a Finnish national or two gets apprehended and interrogated by airport security. Anyhow, a couple odd things about the scene. First, these guys and their consulate representative are speaking German, not Finnish. No idea why. If there was a second language for Finns, it’d be Swedish or Russian. Secondly, the passports they show are not Finnish, either. They’re definitely German. (OK, most people wouldn’t notice.)

I dunno, this kinda irked me for a moment, but then I got into the movie and in due time forgot about it…

I don’t have the movie in front of me right now (more’s the pity) but I think the Finnish guy may have been pretending to be german. What a mess that movie was.

This is a little bending of the topic, but I love when there is a foreign language idiom that is translated as the English equivalent.

The only example I can think of right now is in Traffic when various characters say “the three letters” and it’s translated as “DEA”. Just thought that was cool.

In literary examples, the best one I can think of was a W.D. Snodgrass poetry book translated into Spanish wherein the translator had for “sunflower” “flower of the sun” instead of the, ya know, actual Spanish word for “sunflower”. Groan.

I’m ashamed to admit I know this, but how about Dude, Where’s My Car?

“Dude! We speak Japanese!”

I remember seeing a subtitled English-language film in Amsterdam. The laughs seemed to come in waves. First from the speed-reading Dutch, then from the native English-speaking tourists, and then a split-second later by the Dutch who were listening to the dialog.

I remember an English translation of Madame Bovary in which Emma goes out to a dance, somewhat surrealistically, with a Chinese lantern on the side of her head.

My French isn’t good enough to read the original, but I assume that Flaubert was describing a particular style of hat, perhaps resembling a Chinese lantern? Although why the translator didn’t realize how bizarre the above sounds and make a similar assumption is beyond me.