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  • The Diacritics 11:10 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: brad pitt, , , inglourious basterds, , movies, tarantino, translation, west wing, world war II   

    Language in the movies 

    (Posted by John)

    Check out this clip of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt.  They’re talking about Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds.  If you don’t know, the movie is a World War II revenge fantasy in which a group of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, undertakes a plot to kill Hitler.  It’s a pretty fantastic movie, especially for the way it uses language as a tool. While most World War II movies avoid the language issues that might arise (everyone speaks English—their accent reveals where they’re actually from), Inglourious embraces language as a means both to drive the plot and to develop suspense. (watch from 12:06, where the clip starts, to about 13:45)

    In his movie, Tarantino’s talking about building suspense in particular in a couple of scenes. The first one is the opening scene of the movie, in which the movie’s Jewish heroine is hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house in France.  An SS agent comes in search of Shoshana and her family.  He is able to draw out a confession from the homeowner without alerting the hidden family that he’s found them out. And he’s able to do it because he switches from French, which the Jewish family understands, to English, which they don’t. Here’s a clip from part of that scene, after Landa has switched to English.

    Here is the exchange that happens a bit later:

    SS Col. Hans Landa: You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?

    Perrier LaPadite[softly] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: You’re sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you.

    Perrier LaPadite[tears forming in his eyes] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: Point out to me the areas where they are hiding. [LaPadite points with his pipe; Landa walks over and stands on top of that area, gesturing with his own pipe for confirmation] Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English.

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes.

    Col. Hans Landa: I’m going to switch back to French now. I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes

    Col. Hans Landa[in French] Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for the milk and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. [walks over to the door and opens it] Ah, ladies. I thank you for your time. [booted Wehrmacht soldiers troop inside and position themselves] We shan’t be bothering your family any longer. So, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, I bid farewell to you and say: adieu!        [Soldiers open fire on the floorboards, killing the Dreyfuses]

    Another scene, probably the most suspenseful of the whole movie, is at a German bar behind enemy lines. A group of Allied soldiers are meeting an informant (Frau Hammersmark) there, but they’re interrupted by a nosy SS officer.  He becomes suspicious of the undercover Allies by detecting subtle differences between the accent that the British officer speaks German with. He doesn’t ultimately discover the man’s nationality, though, until the Brit asks for “three glasses” using the British/American hand signal for “three” (index, middle, ring fingers), instead of the German one (thumb, index, middle).

    (The most relevant parts are the first 3 minutes and  ~10:20-11:00. The whole scene is there though–it gets graphic at the end, so beware.)

    The idea of using linguistic data as a sort of defense goes back to biblical times and the story of the Shibboleth. One side in a war couldn’t pronounce the sh sound at the beginning of the word shibboleth, pronouncing it instead as sibboleth. This alerted the other side that they were dealing with their enemies.

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
    —Judges 12:5-6, NJB
    Of course, things like this are always easier to explain with a West Wing clip:
    Anyway, I think that Tarantino makes a good point–as he says, I don’t buy that Clint Eastwood speaks perfect German. Those differences in language should be exploited to make a better movie…though I hope our military isn’t taking any cues from Brad Pitt as Aldo, trying to speak Italian.
  • The Diacritics 2:02 pm on September 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dialects, tanzania, translation, travel   

    Getting lost in translation 

    (posted by John)

    Over this past summer, I had the great fortune of traveling to Tanzania for a safari (shooting with cameras, not guns). It was awesome—we saw pretty much all of the animals one might hope to see, from lions and leopards to hornbills and hippos. But we also had much more than I had expected in the way of cultural interaction with local tribesmen. We hung out with Maasai warriors, Hadza bushmen, and members of a small highland tribe called the Mbulu.

    They would help out in our camps, and they taught us about how they lived. We learned how to make a friction fire, how to throw a Maasai spear, how to make Hadzabe bows and arrows, how to find stingless bee honey, among other cool—and mostly useless in my everyday life—skills. Even cooler was learning something about their language.

    Tanzania has two official langauges: Swahili and English. Swahili is spoken by most, English, except for a few words, by very few. Then there are the tribal languages. According to the Ethnologue, there are 128 of them with at least one known speaker today. This may not quite reach the number of language spoken in some places, like India, but it’s still a lot.

    Tanzania has only had its independence for 50 years. Before this, there was no language spoken across the entire nation. Thus the first president, Julius Nyerere, decided that he needed to pick one for everyone to learn. So which one of the 128 do you choose? What does it mean to select one tribal language and impose it upon the other tribes? According to our safari guides (Tanzanian citizens) it was thought that by choosing any language, Nyerere would be giving preference to one tribal group. Many feared that the simple process of selecting a national language would throw the country into serious turmoil, igniting tribal rivalries and prolonging inter-tribal enmity from years past. To avoid this, Nyerere looked outside Tanzania to what serves as East Africa’s lingua franca: Swahili.

    Nyerere hoped that by doing this, he could create a national identity that could be layered on top of tribal identities. He didn’t want to supplant the rich cultural traditions of the tribes, but it was crucial to create some kind of national unity as well. Even so, many people living in the farthest reaches of the country speak nothing other than their tribal language. We’re talking about languages with fewer than 500 speakers, most or all of whom speak not a word of either official language. When we visited the Mbulu, who speak a language with Arabic influence called Iraqw, our guides had to have a translator. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine the strangeness of being completely unable to communicate with another citizen of our country. Talk about heterogeneity—the cultural insularity of these groups is nearly complete!

    Having a common language is crucial to creating a national identity. That’s why Nyerere chose one in the first place. One practical reason for this is just how much gets lost in translation when the language isn’t shared.

    There was one instance of this that arose a number of times during our trip that is illustrative, and it’s between the two official languages themselves, English and Swahili. It’s mostly trivial—I doubt any tribal wars would be launched because of it—but it’s still kind of interesting.

    In Swahili, the word for “you’re welcome” is karibu. It doesn’t, however, translate entirely cleanly from English. Kind of like the Italian prego, it can mean a number of things besides “you’re welcome” in the English sense of the word. You would say karibu to welcome a person (to your home, say) or if you let someone go in front of you in the street (kind of like our “after you”).

    It is also used, like the German bitte, when you give something to somebody, before they thank you. When we do this in English, we say something like “here you are.” But when Swahili waiters, for example, brought out a dish, they would put it down and say “you’re welcome.” Translation here becomes problematic; it’s actively rude in English to say “you’re welcome” before someone says “thank you.”

    Again, this example is trivial, but the issue of not understanding the correct register is not. When we learn a new language, register is one of the last aspects that we pick up. Knowing when to use formal endings is a problem that plagues English learners of French and Spanish. This is even difficult across dialects of English! Usage of adults’ first names, for, say, a friend’s parents, differs widely between dialects.

    Other issues of formality get lost, too. I’m from Virginia. During my first week at Harvard, I was in a restaurant, and I needed to get the waitress’s attention. I said, “Excuse me, ma’am, could I have some more water.” I was laughed at by my newly-made northern friends. They would never have used ma’am. (I think they said they’d use “miss,” or just eschew all titles and say “excuse me.”)

    This, again, is kind of trivial. But you can imagine the problems it might present for a country of 128 distinct languages, already struggling to find a sense of unity in the wake of independence. I find it difficult to believe the country would be as peaceful and unified as it is today if Nyerere hadn’t chosen his national language carefully. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree.

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