Lost in Translation: Early Sound Films and the Language Barrier

Restoring silent films isn’t always an easy task. Often, the films only exist in one language, or in bits and pieces in different countries. In the latter case, that means piecing the films together from whatever prints are still available. But with silents, that’s not a huge deal. Silent films are almost universal. There was no language barrier, except for the title cards. To view a silent film in a different language, all one needs is title cards in the right language. And even that isn’t truly necessary, for silent films can carry the same power no matter what.

It could be argued, as some have, that silent films are so magical because of their universal nature. As a visual art form, silents work in the purest sense: they are visual works that are can be presented in the same form everywhere. A silent film is more universal than any novel or lyrical song can ever be, because there is no language barrier.

Talkies changed that.

We’ve talked here before about the many issues, both in technology and quality, that came about upon the introduction of sound. But there is yet another aspect that is very intriguing: the language barrier and how it was tackled. Nowadays, we expect to see films in a different language one of two ways, either with subtitles or with dubbing. In the days of early sound, studios decided to take a different route, one that sounds a little bit cumbersome. They just went ahead and filmed movies multiple times in different languages.

Yes, the solution for many at the time was just to film the movie all over again. Much like silent and talking versions were made for a time, so were multiple versions in various languages. Dubbing just wasn’t a real possibility at the time, due to technology restraints. And so, a strange phenomena emerged where alternate films were created for different parts of the world.

Buster Keaton found himself making multiple versions of all of his early sound films. His first one, Free and Easy, was shot four different times. In addition to the English version, it was shot in French, German and Spanish. With each version, Keaton found himself with a completely different that spoke the actual language (he got by phonetically). Interestingly, the Spanish version of Doughboys reportedly runs around twenty minutes longer than the original.


Creating alternate versions supposedly caused Alfred Hitchcock fits. He first ran into trouble with multiple versions of Blackmail, one silent and one talking. Thanks to a very thick accent by his leading actress, she had to mouth the words while another woman off-screen actually read them. Making the German version of Murder! (called Mary) proved to also be very difficult. Filmed at the same time on the same sets with different actors, not everything translated. Hitchcock found himself having trouble working with actors with whom he couldn’t communicate with effectively. Not only that, but much of the material in the dialogue didn’t fit upon translation. The actual content of the film ended up shrunk down, running much shorter than the English version.

It’s easy to see why the trend didn’t last. This was simply not feasible from a number of different perspectives. Filming a movie multiple times is just too time consuming, especially when it requires recasting multiple times. And it also didn’t work precisely because of the language barrier. Expecting a director to work with a cast and crew and that will not speak the same language as him/her is asking a lot. Things will get lost in translation, as will nuances in dialogue and language that don’t carry over in another tongue.

The latter will always be an issue in films in a language besides our own. As effective as foreign language films still are, the language barrier will always block out something. That is what was lost when silent films ended.


TCM Silent Film Schedule: April

After two months with very few silent films, TCM presents a solid lineup of ten films this month. These Include multiple films from heavy hitters: two each starring Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish.

The King of Kings (1927): TCM’s choice for Easter Sunday is an appropriate one: a film about the final days of Jesus. One of Cecil B. DeMille’s biggest epics, it’s also HB Warner’s most well-known role (although not necessarily most well-acted role).

The Young Rajah (1922): Despite being one of cinema’s biggest stars at the time, this is one film that was not a success for Rudolph Valentino. Considered lost for decades, the film only exists now thanks to a TCM restoration. The complete footage does not exist, but the gaps are filled in with title cards.
The Son of the Sheik (1926): On the other hand, Valentino’s sequel to The Sheik was a major success. Unfortunately, Valentino passed away just a month after the premiere. Prior to that, it was seen as a possible career resurgence for the star.

Coney Island (1917): A Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton short, this was actually filmed on Coney Island itself.
Number, Please? (1920): Another silent comedy short, this one finds Harold Lloyd at an amusement park. He would only make five more shorts after this one.

Intolerance (1916): Made partially in response to criticism of The Birth of a Nation, this sprawling epic is one of silent film’s most notable productions. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. And it shows–some of the set pieces are a sight to behold.

The Wind (1928): Lillian Gish personally chose Victor Sjöström to direct this starring vehicle for her. It was a perfect match, as was her and co-star Lars Hanson. This is a classic not to be missed.

The Ace of Hearts (1921): Lon Chaney and director Wallace Worsley first worked together on The Penalty and reunite here. A gritty crime film, this is based off the pulp novel The Purple Mask (written by the same writer of The Penalty).
The Scarecrow (1920): Probably one of Keaton’s best shorts: this features plenty of familiar faces: Sybil Seely, Joe Keaton and Joe Keaton.

Kean (1924): This is a French film with a Russian cast and crew, about an English actor. Makes sense, right? A biography of Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, it is based on a play.