Posted by: patenttranslator | August 4, 2012

On The Incredible Contrast Between Monolingual American Movie Stars And Bruno Ganz

Judging by their movies, American movie stars are good at many things, such as carousing, shooting, and driving cars against oncoming traffic at unsafe speeds. But they are not very good at speaking in tongues if by that we mean other tongues than their native English.

I watch a lot of films, but the last American movie star who amazed me with her perfect German and Polish was Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice which I saw 30 years ago in 1982. American actors who pretend to be speaking a foreign language in a film, usually in the role of a bad guy, are mostly almost completely incomprehensible when they fake languages that are not really that far from English such as German or French. When they pretend to be speaking a more difficult language such as Russian, I can’t understand a single word they say.

It sounds more as if they are uttering some weird grunting sounds, which is probably how most American film directors imagine that a Slavic language must sound. The script probably says something like: Now make a few Russian grunts that will be transcribed in the subtitles as “Give me all your money or I will blow your head clean off!”

Since the target audience for American movies are mostly viewers in America, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever how horribly an unknown actor or a movie star butchers the pronunciation of a few simple foreign words, which, after all, could be learned in a few minutes.

Foreign movies stars who want to work in Hollywood, on the other hand, must learn to speak English that is understandable, with the exception of a famous actor from Austria whose first name is Arnold.

I can think of quite a few foreign stars who appeared in many American movies speaking English with only an interesting hint of foreign accent, such as Max von Sydow, Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche, or Julie Delpy. And some are so good that they are in fact allowed, or perhaps even encouraged, to keep their original accent, such as Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz.

But as far as I am concerned, none of them is at the same level, linguistically speaking, as the multilingual actor genius from Switzerland by the name of Bruno Ganz.

I heard him in movies in which he spoke fluent Italian and beautiful French. I only saw one movie where he spoke accented English in the role of an immigrant to Australia. It was an amazing film, very dramatic, and without a single shot or car chasing scene. The drama was in the dialogues.

My favorite film with Bruno Ganz is Pan e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips), where he plays a sad waiter from Iceland (Fernando) who is at the beginning of the film attempting to take his own life, but in the end wins the love of Licia Maglietta (Rosalba) by talking to her in archaic Italian learned from Petrarcha and Dante. It must have been very difficult to translate what he was saying to her into English and other languages. This film is so European, I watched it three times. It was like going on vacation to the Old World.

So what did the grateful international public, probably mostly American public, do to reward Bruno Ganz for his fluency in several languages on top of his incredible talent for acting?

They made him a star on Youtube in a spoof on his role as Hitler in the film “Der Untergang” (The Downfall), in which a number of scenes in which Hitler explodes with rage are translated with fake subtitles into English, French, Spanish, Czech and many other languages with titles like Hitler is informed that his Facebook acount is deleted, Hitler is informed that Pokemons don’t exist, Hitler is informed that his pizza will be late, Hitler wants to find out if Justin Bieber is gay, Hitler’s weed is stolen, and many other intriguing titles. Most of the videos are pretty funny in a juvenile delinquent kind of way even if you do understand German, although they are probably much funnier if you don’t know the language. These videos must be extremely popular among young people. When I asked my son who is 21 over dinner whether he knew them, he started grinning right away. I am not putting them on my blog due to the strong language, but they can be found easily on Youtube.

In one of the Youtube videos Bruno Ganz reacts to these video spoofs. But he is not saying in German what is said in the English subtitles. The English translation is just another spoof, but it takes a while before the reader will realize it. Some will probably not realize it at all.

One commenter on Youtube said this:”I saw the German clip so many times that I would really like to know now what he’s saying in German”. But of course, that does not mean that this person will start learning German. English speakers don’t need to learn a foreign language, whether they are a famous movie star, or a bored teenager commenting on Youtube.

Why bother when everybody speaks English, or at the very least ought to?


  1. Bruno Ganz . Der ist was ganz besonderes! This guy is fantastic.

    There is another actor, an Austrian (no, I am not talking about Schwarzenegger). His name is Christoph Waltz who played in Quentin Valentino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” His role as the Jew Hunter, SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa, was just wonderful.

    BTW, I read the other day an amazing statement: “If you can speak English, and another language, you could be sitting on a fortune!
    There are hundreds of companies right now searching for people that can speak two languages. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, as long as you speak English, and at least one other language, there are plenty of jobs for you available.”

    Great, isn’t it? We translators/interpreters have a bright future, don’t we?


  2. Oh, well, it’s just nonsense, probably from Manpower Co. or some such outfit.

    It reminds me of advertising of “Pimsleur’s method” that I keeps seeing online: “Buy a CD for 10 dollars, and you can learn any language in 10 days”.

    If you are stupid enough to fall for this trick, by buying 1 CD you are obligating yourself to buy a whole bunch of other CDs for hundreds of dollars, you will obviously not learn a language, and the people who sell the shtick don’t really have anything to do with teaching of languages, it is just a highly dishonest marketing ploy, quite typical of the level of dishonesty in marketing these days.


  3. You have got to be kidding!!! Max von Sidow, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz with only an “interesting hint of [a] foreign accent”?

    Moving beyond the realm of cinema, I have seen several interviews with Bela Karolyi, and it took a few minutes before I realized he was speaking English. I know that languages are not his stock in trade, but he could get a tutor.


  4. “And some are so good that they are in fact allowed, or perhaps even encouraged, to keep their original accent, such as Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz.”

    Do you understand English?


  5. Well put, Steve. In class we talk a lot about how most people in most parts of the world are bilingual if not multilingual, and how humans are actually pre-programmed for many languages. This obviously excludes (most) Americans 😉


  6. Thank you, Katja.

    But I actually don’t believe that most people in most parts of the world are bilingual. Most are monolingual but many more are bilingual in other parts of the world than here because in other parts of the world it is very useful to be bilingual or multilingual.

    On the other hand, thanks god for the monolinguals! If everybody spoke a bunch of languages I would have to get a real job.


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