Russian on screen

Apr 5, 2011 by

To stay on the subject of language in films, I want to share a pet-peeve of mine: inappropriate or inacurate rendition of foreign languages in films. Typically, what catches my eye (or ear?) is “bad” Russian in American films. And I am not talking about art film. But still.

Take, for example, the 1999 James Bond flick “The World Is Not Enough”, in which the intrepid Bond uncovers a nuclear plot while protecting an oil heiress from her former kidnapper. In one of the scenes, Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan, whom I personally think to be the best Bond on screen ever) pretends to be a Russian scientist. A gorgeous female American scientist Dr. Christmas Jones (have you ever met a gorgeous female scientist, honestly?!) asks him how come he speaks such good English, for a Russian. To which Bond replies Ja uchilsja v Oksforde ‘I studied at Oxford’. Which I could decipher only when I read the subtitles. With all due respect to Pierce Brosnan, this is not a hard phrase to pronounce and it involves no non-English sounds except one (just one!) palatalized [s’] in uchilsja . How difficult could it be to get it right?!

Or take a more recent Russian-spy thriller, the 2010 movie “Salt” with Angelina Jolie as a CIA-agent slash Russian spy Evelyn Salt. In one episode, she comes to meet with her alleged runner Orlov and other “old comrades” from a special orphanage back in the Soviet Union, where Orlov has trained her and many other children to obey him and ingratiate themselves to the American government. When she gets there, she and her “comrades” great each other with:

Privet, comrade such-and-such!

One could not come up with a more inappropriate salutation: privet is extremely informal, used among friends and close relatives, never among mere colleagues, whereas addressing someone as comrade such-and-such implies a high level of formality, even pathos. Not only do the two not go together, but neither is really appropriate for the situation. The salutation privet implies the level of friendship that cannot be maintained after 20-something years of not seeing each other, nor is it appropriate for people who’s current connection is professional, not personal. The form of address comrade such-and-such would do when calling on someone to take a pledge, bear witness or some other highly formal situation. Moreover, today it is barely used at all because of its connotation with the Soviet times and mores (which may be exactly why it would sort of make sense in this movie).

However, a much more natural greating in this scene would be something like zdravstvuj (or zdravstvujte, depending on the desired level of formality), followed by the first name or, more likely, the last name of the adressee. In this case too, one would have to worry about the right combination: zdravstvuj can be followed by either first or last name, but zdravstvujte only by the last name.

To recap, one needs a good sense of the language, as well as cultural sensibilities in order to know how to greet a Russian in what circumstances. But with over 830,000 Russian speakers in the US (according to the MLA 2005 data), of them over 566,000 working age adults and over 94,000 of those living in the movie-making state of California, is really impossible to find someone who possesses the necessary qualifications for a consultant job? (I will be happy to offer my services, yes.)

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