Writing good dialogue is tough even in normal situations, but sooner or later you’re likely to encounter a story with an added challenge. In some of these cases there is no “official” way to handle the dialogue. In my next few posts I’ll discuss some of the options for these challenges so hopefully you can find a solution that fits your problem and comes across as professional. Today I’ll discuss foreign languages.
Obviously in the real world not everybody speaks the same language. And since your movie will be targeted to speakers of one particular language (for the purposes of this blog I’m going to assume English), when a character is speaking in another language you will have to figure out how to handle it.
If you’re entire movie takes place in another language the best approach is just to write in English. The audience will understand that the people in your story of the French revolution are speaking French and appreciate not having to read subtitles for the entire movie. The Reader (screenplay by David Hare) took this approach – the movie is entirely set in Germany about Germans but the dialogue is in English.
If you do this you will want to make the dialogue slightly more formal and avoid slang and idiom. It just sounds weird if someone from India says, “that’s awesome, dude.” Somehow we can accept the fallacy that English is a stand-in for another language but can’t accept slang. However, the dialogue still must sound conversational. Too formal and it will seem stilted.
This is obviously tricky and may take some trial and error. I like to have a few friends read the script and instruct them to make a mark next to any line of dialogue that strikes them as off.
In The Hunt for Red October (screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart) there were two submarines, one Russian and one American. The filmmakers famously started the dialogue on the Russian sub in Russian, then zoomed in on Sean Connery’s mouth and switched to English to indicate to the audience that though the dialogue on that sub would be in English from now on we were to understand the characters were still speaking Russian.
If you only have a few lines of dialogue in another language you have a variety of options.
If you don’t care if the audience understands the character one option is to just write the dialogue in the foreign language (if you are fluent or can get someone to write it out for you). I wouldn’t advise this for longer passages.
A second option is to indicate the speech in an action line, such as:
The policeman rants at him in German.
A third option is to indicate the dialogue is in another language, such as:
Move that car!
However if the dialogue is actually conveying important story information this last approach is risky since the script is giving the reader information that the viewer wouldn’t have.
Subtitling used to be frowned on for a variety of reasons. One problem is that people talk faster than we can read so subtitles usually have to be condensed for any extended amount of dialogue. Another issue is that people read at different speeds and of course some people can’t read at all (though this was a bigger problem in the early days of film than it is today.)
Subtitles have become more acceptable now, and are actually the preferred way to handle most foreign language situations. Slumdog Millionaire (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy) and The Kite Runner (screenplay by David Benioff) had large sections in other languages with subtitles. The scripts I’ve seen for these films simply ignored this and wrote all the dialogue in English.
I would suggest it’s usually better to indicate which dialogue is in English and which is subtitled. There are a couple formats that are common for subtitling. For the occasional line it’s most common to indicate the subtitle in a parenthetical:
(In Russian, subtitled)
If it’s a whole scene or section of the script you can use action lines to indicate the subtitling. When you do this it’s fairly common to then bracket the subtitled dialogue. For example:
Pablo enters. Maria lounges on the couch.
(THE FOLLOWING SCENE IS IN SPANISH WITH SUBTITLES)
[Why isn’t dinner read?]
[I got delayed at the bank.]
[You always have some excuse.]
So you have many options to deal with the challenge of foreign languages in your script. Which one you choose will depend largely on the amount of dialogue that will be in the foreign language. Next post I’ll discuss some other unusual dialogue situations.