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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.


One response to “Lost in Translation: Early Sound Films and the Language Barrier

  1. Pingback: Lost in Translation: Murder! vs. Mary | Classic Film Haven

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