language on the qt

Many people write about Quentin Tarantino’s use of language, and rightly so, but I think there’s something being missed here (at least in anything I’ve read).

When people use the word “language” in connection with Tarantino, they mean English. But in three of his films, including the last two, foreign languages have played a major role in driving the plots.

For example, there are two scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1 where language is a major factor. For example, in the “Man from Okinawa” scene, Beatrix comes into a small sushi shop, flipping her hair and acting like a clueless American tourist. She sits at the counter, and the sushi chef teaches her a couple of simple Japanese words as he prepares her order. She practices her pronunciation, and then he asks why she’s come to Okinawa. She says she’s come to see Hattori Hanzo.

The chef asks, in Japanese, why she wants to see Hattori Hanzo, and she gives her answer in (obviously fluent) Japanese.

Obviously this was a conversation that was not going to happen in English, and what happens next depends entirely on Beatrix not being the person she was pretending to be. As I pointed out in my review, her mastery of the Japanese language is very important to the overall story.

The other scene is when O-ren Ishii asserts her right to lead the crime families of Japan despite only being part Japanese. I won’t describe the scene (see the movie – it’s worth it), but O-ren deliberately addresses the other crime bosses in English (with her assistant providing simultaneous translation), in order to make it very clear that she can mention the fact that she’s part American, but nobody else is allowed to refer to this fact. Ever.

Inglourious Basterds is more recent and I want to avoid spoilers, but I’ll just say that there are scenes which hinge on: 1) who does and doesn’t speak English, 2) who does and doesn’t speak German, and 3) who does and doesn’t speak Italian. There is also a scene which switches from French to English based on the fact that a character says he doesn’t speak French very well (though that turns out to be a cover for something else), and even a British character who does speak German but doesn’t speak it quite well enough. As he’s about to be killed, he switches to English, saying, “Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.”

I’ve read that when Tarantino finished writing the screenplay of Inglourious Basterds he was afraid that he’d written a movie that he’d never be able to shoot, because he needed to find a really good actor who was fluent in four languages. Fortunately (for both of them), he found Christoph Waltz.

It is also an important plot point in Django Unchained that two of the characters speak German. There are even a couple of other language points which don’t affect the plot (a German character who speaks English better than any of the Americans he encounters, and a Francophile character who liked to be addressed as “monsieur” but doesn’t actually speak French).

That’s the striking part about all this – that (with the exception of the last two) all of these questions actually determine the plot. They’re not just bits of foreign language thrown in for effect.

The catch to this all is that if you’re going to make language so important to your film (or your novel), you have to make sure to get it right. This applies very strongly to action movies these days, where the audience is really international. If you get the foreign language wrong, you’ll hear about it. (Google Translate won’t cut it. :-))

I don’t think my audience is all that international, but I do like to get things right. I’ve established that Jan Sleet speaks several languages, and she would speak them correctly.

Fortunately, I have a friend who speaks fluent French, and I’ve asked him to provide translations for me twice. Once was for Stevie One, and I’m not going to give any spoilers about that. But here’s a link to a scene in the novel U-town, shortly after the founding of U-town itself.

So, apparently the great detective’s skill in foreign languages was actually a significant factor in U-town existing in the first place.

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2 Responses to language on the qt

  1. pagesofjulia says:

    Splendidly done, and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t put together these observations about foreign language use myself! You’re certainly right about the importance of getting it right, whether it’s the use of foreign language or simply jargon. For example, if you’re writing a book about professional baseball, know your baseball! Thanks for pointing out to me another area in which Tarantino shines.

    • It’s very true about getting it right. I was a (rock and roll) musician for a while, and most times when I see musicians in movies it’s obviously fake. I don’t get upset about it; I’ve enjoyed many movies where they got the details wrong. But it is a real pleasure when they get everything right (Almost Famous, for example, which is dead-on accurate in every way).

      Speaking of baseball, I read a mystery once written by a woman who had been a reporter and who had covered and traveled with the Toronto Blue Jays. The mystery itself wasn’t great, but you could tell she knew the details and that was enjoyable in itself (like how the players always take the same seats on the plane, and how the different cliques form — the very religious players always sit together, for example),

      Sometimes you can tell when the details are real even if you don’t know the specific field. I talked about that here.

      I’m glad you registered and commented. I’ve been having a lot of spammers register recently (several a day sometimes) and then they apparently go away when they realize that comments are moderated. It was pleasant to look at the list of new registrations and see the name of a real person. 🙂

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