I’m curious about the use of foreign languages in predominately English scripts. In CHARLIE’S ANGELS, where the Angels speak a ‘secret language’ in front of Eric Knox and his partner, how did you go about writing it? Is it standard to write the scene in English and later translate it? Could you offer any tips or ‘guidelines’ to be used when placing foreign languages in a script?
The "secret language" spoken in CHARLIE’S ANGELS is actually Finnish, although the pronunciation is probably spotty. The screenplay only printed what they were saying in English. A translator came in quite a bit later, just before filming. (Incidentally, the subtitled English is completely different from what they’re actually saying in Finnish. Because some scenes got flopped around in post-production, we used the subtitles to switch a major part of the Dylan/Knox timeline.)
In terms of your own screenplays, obviously, most readers won’t be able to read dialogue in a foreign language, beyond the occasional "hola" or "s’il vous plait" which can go untranslated. So you need to make a decision how you’re going to handle it in your script. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but here’s how I usually do it.
- If it’s just a word here and there, and the meaning is obvious in context,
don’t bother translating it. An example is when a ubiquitous foreign bad
guy shouts at his men to do something. Since it doesn’t really matter what
saying, just use the foreign word if you know it. Sometimes, this type
of dialogue doesn’t even make it on to the dialogue line, and gets summarized
in the action
like, "Moldona SHOUTS at his men to stop the angels."
- If you think the dialogue would probably be subtitled in the movie, italicize
it in the script.
- If characters are speaking in a foreign language for the duration of a
scene or scenes, put a parenthical like "(in Russian; subtitled)" for
the first speaking character, then just use italicized English for the
rest of the scene or scenes.
- This is more of a pet peeve, but a lot of words that are technically foreign are pretty common in Engish too, so don’t italicize things like gringo, taco, samurai or vis-a-vis. It sticks out and feels pretentious.