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Saturday, July 14, 2007

How to Indicate Another Language

What if you have a character who speaks another language entirely? Do you need to indicate that every time they speak, subtitles will be necessary? Well, yes. Sort of. How you indicate this is key, however.

I have seen writers do this:

Howard and Rolfe punt across the river. Rolfe speaks Russian.

Rolfe: (In Russian)
I am allergic to water. I can’t find that in my phrase book.

Howard speaks English.

Howard (In English)
Jolly good! We’ll row for five more kilometers!

Rolfe speaks Russian.

Rolfe (In Russian)
I’m beginning to regret this vacation.

All right. Not only have you annoyed your reader mightily very quickly (and imagine, Rouge Wavers, this method of indicating Rolfe's language extending the length of a script) you are also being redundant and using up precious space. This is not the way to indicate that Rolfe speaks Russian. Also, if your script is being considered here in the US, it’s a given that it’s written in English and that all characters speak English. So you don’t need to indicate that Howard speaks English – of course he does. But we do have the problem of Rolfe.

Here’s how you approach that. The very first time we meet Rolfe, describe him as you normally would a new character but note that he speaks a different language.

ROLFE, (20) muscular with Slavic features and a Faberge egg tattoo on his right forearm, speaks only Russian.

Rolfe: (in Russian) I miss my homeland.

Howard: You want to go rowing?

BUT what if Howard is English but speaks and understands Russian? Well, that’s simple. You can do one of two things:

Rolfe: (in Russian) I have a great fear of drowning.

Howard: No worries, dear boy. I’m a certified punter. I’ve never lost a tourist yet.

You see? It's clear that Howard understood Rolfe judging by his answer.
Here's another way:

Rolfe: (in Russian) You don’t understand – I have nightmares about Virginia Woolfe!

Howard: (in Russian) Yes, well, she was right daft.

Rolfe: (in Russian) Are you saying I’m crazy?

Howard: I don’t get paid enough for this.

Rolfe: (in Russian) What?

Howard: (in Russian) I said it’s almost tea time, don’t you think?

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The Other Pete said...

So here's a question for you - how would you indicate sign language in a script, especially when one character is an interpreter who signs and speaks in the same scenes?

Julie Gray said...

You establish when we first meet each character how they communicate.

So - we meet JULIE (22) a striking, whip-smart, sensual and profoundly deaf woman. She uses sign language to communicate.

Interpreter LLOYD (29) Oxford-educated, bearded and handsome, has perfect hearing but he speaks sign language fluently. He speaks aloud softly while he signs.

Julie (signs) Why are you here?

Lloyd: (signs) You know perfectly well.

That's what I would do. All you have to do is establish that once and then if you have a new character just describe the way in which they communicate when we first meet them. A reader won't forget on page 22 that Lloyd signs but also speaks aloud.

For some research get the script for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD or even an episode or two of MY NAME IS EARL in which Joy uses her deaf lawyer - Marlee Matlin.