Posted by: patenttranslator | July 20, 2015

The Incredible Inauthenticity of Fake Foreign Accents in American Movies

When American films tell a story that is set in a foreign country, the actors and actresses in those movies often speak a slightly funny version of English with an accent that is supposed to correspond to the language of the country where the story is based.

The first time I noticed this peculiar phenomenon was when I saw the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sometime during the eighties. In that film, it did not bother me that everybody spoke English with a slightly phony Czech accent. After all, Lena Olin, who plays Sabina is Swedish, Juliette Binoche who plays Teresa is French, so they naturally have a European accent when they speak English anyway.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Tomas, a Don Juan who can’t make up his mind which woman he really loves is English, but I thought his Czech accent was pretty authentic. They must have all been taking lessons in how to speak English with a fake Czech accent, and they were very good students.

I thought the world on the screen in which everybody spoke English with the same accent that I have when I speak English was perfectly acceptable and plausible …….. what could be possibly wrong with a world in which people speak English with the same cool accent that I have?

But I had a different reaction when I saw recently the film “The Book Thief” – a film about a Jewish refugee who is hidden in a house of a German family in Nazi Germany and who is being red to books stolen for him by a German girl.

I just found it so strange that Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nélisse or Emily Watson would be speaking English with a fake German accent. Somehow the simulated German accents in that film struck me as implausible and phony to such an extent that I could not concentrate on the plot of the movie.

Why is it that in American movies set in foreign, far-away and exotic countries (such as communist Czechoslovakia or Nazi Germany), actors whose first language is English are forced to adopt a fake foreign accent?

After all, we as viewers understand that what we are watching is not a documentary. Or at least some of us do. So the fictional people in the fictional story would in reality (if it were a real story) be speaking Czech or German without a foreign accent, wouldn’t they?

Or could it be that most people whose first language is English think that people in other countries speak a language that is basically very much like English, expect it has a funny foreign accent, such as German, French, or Russian?

If the film director wanted to make the story more realistic and plausible, to me, anyway, he would need to force Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche and Daniel-Day Lewis to learn to speak Czech in that movie, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson would need to learn fluent German, preferably with a Bavarian accent. The obvious problem, in addition to demanding that actors really learn how to speak a foreign language instead of only learning how to speak their own language while faking a bit of a foreign accent, is that there would have to be subtitles, and American audiences definitely do not like subtitled movies.

In fact, I remember only one subtitled film that I saw here 33 years ago in a movie theater in United States. It was a beautiful, very non-Hollywood Spanish film that I saw with this girl, what was her name …. Nanette, on Polk Street in San Francisco 33 years ago.

And the movie theater was almost empty.

The language problem here is probably with the audience rather than with the actors. Many actors are very talented when it comes to languages, regardless of their nationality or first language, although few would be able to rise to the occasion the way Bruno Ganz can do it, a Swiss actor who can speak so many languages so effortlessly. I saw and heard him in films speaking French, Italian, English, and of course also his native German. My favorite movie with Bruno Ganz was Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani), where he plays in an immigrant from Reykjavik who speaks archaic Italian learned from Petrarca’s sonnets about Laura.

Unfortunately, most young people know him only from the Hitler parodies on Youtube.

If you saw Sophie’s Choice, another great movie from the eighties, Meryl Streep speaks English in that movie with what I thought was very authentic Polish accent, and when she was speaking both Polish and German in the film, I could not detect a trace of foreign accent in her pronunciation in either of these languages.

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that film directors think of us, their audience, as little stupid children who need actors speaking to them in a fake foreign accent if the story takes place in a country where people speak another language?

Pseudo-realism is how Hollywood fakes authenticity these days. Although, it could do a much better job. Most of the time, when the American or English actors do say a few sentences in a foreign language in a big budget movie, their accent is so thick that what they say is understandable only if you can read the English subtitles.

Why can’t they spend some time to learn how to pronounce a few words close enough to the original language so that the words would be understandable? Especially when they pronounce a few Russian words in dozens of movies in which a Russian is invariably the bad guy who will be in the end humiliated and defeated, those few Russian words that are pronounced by a native English speaker sound more like a mixture between Chinese and Hungarian than Russian.

The answer is, of course, that nobody cares about what Germans, Russians, or the French might think about the actor’s accent. Even if the words are so badly mispronounced that they are completely incomprehensible to people who actually speak the foreign language, the only audience that the film director cares about are people who speak only English.

Faked authenticity is important and can be lucrative not only when it comes to pronunciation of words in a foreign language or politics (I forgot which American politician characterized his profession by saying “If you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made).” Faked authenticity is also a conditio sine qua non in what is called “ethnic” restaurants.

Ask any Japanese person whether the sushi sold at that sushi place in downtown tastes like real sushi in Japan, and they will laugh at you. Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, where do you get fresh fish for you sushi in downtown, unless it is downtown Japan? There must be very few places where one can get this particular ingredient in this country, and without it, sushi is no longer sushi, I am told.

That’s right, I can’t really tell authentic sushi from fake sushi either, although I can tell really horrible fake sushi, which is what they sell in most “sushi” restaurants in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, where sushi is mostly prepared by cooks from the Philippines or China.

If the ethnic cuisine is truly authentic, it would be popular with immigrants from the original country, but not with the locals.

So the chefs and the cooks have to adjust their culinary masterpieces to please the palate of the locals if they want to offer “ethnic” menu in a restaurant that will be popular not only with expats, but also with the locals. McDonalds in China probably does not really taste like McDonalds in America, and you can have good Czech beer with your chicken wings at the KFC in Prague – otherwise the locals will stay away from spicy food that comes only with Coke or Sprite.

I can understand all that and it does not really bother me that an authentic “ethnic” restaurant is usually not really very authentic when it comes to the food on the menu.

But foreign accents faked by actors who can only speak English in American movies bother me for some reason.

I will probably need another 33 years in this country to get used to that.


  1. A ‘Dutch’ accent in American movies usually sounds much more like a German accent. And do you remember the Dutch guy ‘Gunther’ from Friends? As if any Dutch person is called Gunther! A real Austrian accent is also very distinct, but Bruno the Austrian fashion reporter sounds German, not Austrian. Speaking of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat’s undefined language is a mixture of Russian, Turkish and Polish. I do like the way foreign accents are used in Allo Allo; the way officer Crabtree speaks ‘French with a thick British accent’ is just hilarious.


  2. The same with the American movie “Millenium 1, Man who hate women”. I enjoyed the books, but seeing the movie with English / American actors faking accents (which I guess they meant to sound Swedish) ruined it for me….The problema was some faked the accent and some didn’t, and each accent was diferente..a mess!


  3. @Tom & Manuela

    It is not just actors and film directors who are unable to fake knowledge of foreign languages and countries somewhat convincingly. English and American writers also often get the names of characters wrong. For instance if these characters are Polish or Russian, they misspell the name in a way that would be completely unacceptable in these languages.

    It always spoils the whole book for me and I think less of the author.

    I sometime get e-mails from crooks in Nigeria who pretend that they are a Japanese person looking for a divorce lawyer or another kind of lawyer. They also usually mess up the Japanese names.


  4. I thought they were supposed to have dialogue/accent coaches on major films and TV series? I’ve certainly read about them (and am pretty sure Streep had one for Sophie’s Choice.


  5. Yes, actors do have accent coaches. When I lived in San Francisco in the eighties and nineties, I used to work in the same office with a guy who was also part-time coaching actors who needed to fake foreign accents. He spoke about 5 languages, including some Arabic.

    He was very good at parodies of German professors explaining things like Geschichte der Völkerwanderung in Europa, or parodies of how Japanese speakers pronounce English, although he did not speak it – several of our colleagues were Japanese.

    I understand he eventually took the Foreign Service exam.


  6. On a somewhat related note, I’m astonished at the number of British actors playing American roles in U.S. movies and TV shows in recent years. As though a nation with five times the population doesn’t have an adequate supply of home-grown, native-accent actors…


  7. My theory is that unless a British actor/actress is seen playing American roles in American movies, (s)he is not really considered to have really made it big. The opposite is probably not true, at least not as much.

    The other explanation is that both Britain and Australia have really outstanding actors and Americans can’t get enough of them.

    Maybe it’s a combination of both.


  8. […] It’s because the people tasked by the film producer with making the actors speak in a foreign language in American movies are monolingual, incompetent, and although they don’t have a clue how to do their job, they can get away with murder, as I wrote in this post entitled The Incredible Inauthenticity of Fake Foreign Accents in American Movies. […]


  9. plays Sabina, is Swedish, Juliette Binoche, who plays Teresa, is French, so they naturally have a European accent when they speak English anyway.


  10. Is this actress had play roles at this film?


  11. You are so right! It’s alway bothered me. Either speak English or speak Russian and subtitle it. I think what they are trying to translate are books written about people from another country mostly in English by NA English speaking authors. It’s workable in a book but translates horribly in a movie. I just read
    Child 44 and LOVED the book. I couldn’t even get through the trailer the Russian accented English was so off putting!

    Liked by 1 person

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