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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