On language on film, again

Sep 8, 2011 by

In a couple of earlier postings, I’ve talked about language in films and specifically about my pet-peeves in this regard. Perhaps I am not supposed to be thinking about this, but I do. And more often than not, inappropriate or inacurate rendition of foreign languages in films bothers me.

Take the film “The Debt”.


Here’s something I don’t understand. When the trio of Mossad agents first kidnap Vogel, “the surgeon of Birkenau”, he speaks to them only in German (subtitled in English, for the benefit of the viewer). So they think he doesn’t understand them when they speak among themselves, and they continue to openly discuss their feelings for each other, their life histories, and most importantly, their plans with respect to Vogel himself. And what they speak among themselves is rendered as English, but it can’t be English that they speak, right? I mean, wouldn’t you think that they actually speak Hebrew among themselves? Okay, so let’s assume for the moment that when we hear English in the film, it is actually Hebrew that they speak (this, by the way, is a very common way of rendering foreign languages in film).

So here’s my question. As the events of the plot develop, Vogel says something in “English” (which we now assume is really Hebrew), and Rachel realizes that he understood the conversations that they conducted among themselves assuming Vogel doesn’t understand what they are saying (ergo, he knows who they are, why they kidnapped him, and more importantly what plans they might have for him). But assuming that English really stands for Hebrew in this film, how likely is it that a German, a Nazi, “the surgeon of Birkenau” speaks Hebrew? Not likely, right? But assuming that Mossad agents speak among themselves in English — a language that a Nazi is more likely to understand — is equally unlikely, it seems to me. So the plot doesn’t clinch…

Am I missing something here? Or am I thinking too much about something that I shouldn’t be thinking about at all?

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  • Anonymous

    There was an urban legend that Eichmann had spent quite a while in Palestine as a young man, and had learned Hebrew there. Perhaps they're hinting at that.


  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @David: That's an interesting idea, thank you for sharing it!

  • John Cowan

    I haven't seen the film, but I'd assume they really are speaking English. Still, it's pretty stupid of them to think a German wouldn't speak and understand English just because they didn't hear him do so. So the premise is dumb either way.

  • John Cowan

    According to Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann "acquired a smattering of Hebrew, which enabled him to read haltingly a Yiddish newspaper — not a very difficult accomplishment, since Yiddish, basically an old German dialect written in Hebrew letters, can be understood by any German-speaking person who has mastered a few dozen Hebrew words."

    Probably true of the remnants of Western Yiddish still spoken in Germany before the Holocaust; definitely not true of Eastern Yiddish. In any case, that is not the same as understanding fluent Israeli Hebrew conversation, a language which hardly anyone outside the British Mandate understood at the time, still less its modern version.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Thank you for both comments! I agree with you that the plot/premise is stupid either way. I won't deny that these guys would have probably spoken English, but why would they do so in a situation, where in English they are more likely to be overheard and understood AND when speaking to each other? Especially, with all the national pride attached to Hebrew (even more so in 1966 when the story takes place).

    And you are absolutely right about Yiddish vs. German. In fact, the Soviets trained many Jews to be military interpreters and translators during WWII, despite all the security concerns the NKVD might have had about them. The reason: it was just so much easier for a Jew who spoke Yiddish (even the Eastern variety) to learn German. For example, the interpreter who worked with the Soviet team looking for Hitler's remains in Berlin in May 1945 was Jewish…

    I hope I didn't ruin the movie for you, in case you end up watching it yourself!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig
  • Lane

    This is why it's so great that a major Hollywood film with a brand-name director and expensive cast – Inglourious Basterds – not only was almost half in non-English languages (mostly French and German), but had several plot points revolve ingeniously around language, both comic (Brad Pitt's "Italian") and tragic (won't spoil any plot points).

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thanks for sharing this, Lane! As I haven't watched this film, I am not sure what you are talking about, but it's the first thing I hear about this film that makes me want to watch it 😉

  • stormboy

    I think the film makers must be depending on a lower level of linguistic sophistication among their target audience, plus the usual suspension of disbelief.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @stormboy: You are right! I think about this too much…

  • stormboy

    @Asya: "I think about this too much…"

    I think it's impossible (or very hard) to totally remove yourself from your knowledge/expertise when watching a film. If you know about language/linguistics, for example, you'll pay close attention to linguistic elements of the film and may well end up judging the entire film on this basis. My mum (a nurse of 45 years) does this with medical scenes – if they're not accurate, as far as she's concerned, it ruins her entire enjoyment of the film/TV programme.

  • Some German schools in the prewar time taught biblical Hebrew.

    • Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Oliver! I had no idea… Do you know how widely-spread that was?

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