Lost in Translation

A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)

Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)

I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.

The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.

He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?

As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.

Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.

But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.

Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.

If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.

Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.


A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.

“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”

It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.

Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.

“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.

“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”

“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.

Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.

And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.

And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.

But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.

What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.

It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3

Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?

But I digress. :)

I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.


  1. More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
  2. Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
  3. In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.

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9 Responses to “Lost in Translation”
  1. We were having some issues with comments earlier, and it turned out to be conflicting plugins. I’ve disabled quite a few of them, now, and comments are once more available. Thanks for your patience.

  2. Sherry says:

    Gary, Gary. You obvs don’t spend enough time around students. The rest of the class just isn’t really paying attention, as usual. ;)

  3. I love the old Chaplin films! It’s interesting to me how society’s sense of humor has changed over the years. I think kids nowadays lack the appreciation of the genius behind Chaplin.

    • I’ve watched quite a few of both Chaplin’s and Keaton’s films, and they are really amazing. Not only for that unique thing I describe in this post, but…they were REALLY athletic and did their own stunts. And it’s amazing how much emotion you can convey without dialogue.

  4. Kriss says:

    I did not realize until I spent some time acting and directing plays that the note one sometimes sees about an actor – “takes direction well” – is not a small thing. Some people simply cannot. Some people who consider themselves actors, simply cannot repeat a phrase with the inflection they heard it. Not because they are being stubborn about an artistic difference. They truly seem to not know what you’re going on about.

    Actor: I don’t THINK that’s needed.
    Director: Try “I don’t think that’s NEEDED.”
    Actor: I don’t THINK that’s needed.
    Director: No, “I don’t think that’s NEEDED.”
    Actor: I don’t THINK that’s needed.
    Director: No no no, emphasize the NEEDED, “I don’t think that’s NEEDED.”
    Actor: I don’t THINK that’s needed.

    At which point I begin to want to choke a man. Why can they not hear the damn difference? I can’t begin to fathom it. “Takes direction well” is not as common as you might think.

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