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Foreign Language Dialogue: The Better Way

Many non-pro screenwriters stumble when dealing with foreign languages.

They frequently include foreign languages in dialogue with translations - they shouldn't.

There are a number of techniques.

Technique #1: Parentheticals

The use of parentheticals is an effective technique provided the screenplay only occasionally strays into foreign dialogue.

E.g.: (in French), (in Spanish) etc

Here's an example from the Bourne Ultimatum script by Tony Gilroy et al:

Bourne freezes POLICEMAN #2 with his gun and a look.

BOURNE

(in Russian)

Give me your gun and radio.

Policeman #2's gun and radio skittle across the floor.

BOURNE

(in Russian)

My argument is not with you.

Bourne smashes the radio and takes the gun.

Bourne exits...

The use of parentheticals is fine provided it's not excessive. The problem is non-pros tend to use them excessively which can be exceedingly distracting for readers. Overuse of parentheticals slows the read and can even sore it.

Butter is a fantastic script. The author Jason Micallef received a Nicholl Fellowship in 2008 for it, two years late the movie was released (starring Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde, Jennifer Garner et al). The script, particularly the dialogue sparkles.

But imagine every line of this dialogue exchange with parentheticals - it would eventually get wearing:

INT. THE PICKLER FAMILY HOME - LATER

Bob sits on the couch with his head down. He holds a BAG OF ICE on his crotch. Laura stands with her hands crossed.

LAURA

She had tattoos, Bob. You know what that means, right? It means she has AIDS!


BOB

Lau-


LAURA

How long has this been going on?

Bob stands up.

BOB

It was just one time. And look, you're not innocent in this whole-


LAURA

You're sleeping on the couch tonight.


BOB

I sleep on the couch every night.


LAURA

(pulling it back together)

If I were you I'd get a good night sleep. County is in a month so we have a lot of work to do.


BOB

Laura. It's over. I'm not entering County. Orval and I agreed -


LAURA

We have to get the butter, sharpen the trowels. We should check the cooling unit to make sure29


BOB

Laura. Listen to me. I'm not competing this year.

Laura stops.

LAURA

I know... I am.

Bob falls back down on the couch.

BOB

What?


LAURA

I'm competing. I'll win county, and then take back what is rightfully ours. And you're going to help me. Good night.

Bob looks at her, dead-eyed.

LAURA

Oh, and I need my beauty rest tonight, so don't be so goddamn loud when you jack-off.

And with that, Laura heads upstairs.

We've received many a non-pro screenplay that had long foreign language dialogue exchanges using parentheticals.

Technique #2: Set language for entire scene

When a screenplay has a particularly foreign dialogue-heavy scene, many pros simply state this at the start of the scene:

All dialogue in Spanish.

Here's an example of this technique it in use:

INT. LIVING AREA

At least a hundred candles have been placed around the apartment. A dinner arrangement, together with flowers and more candles, await on the dining table.

All dialogue in Spanish.

JOHN

(kisses her)

Happy anniversary beautiful.


SARAH

Wow baby, this is so amazing.

(kisses him)

Happy anniversary.

Technique #3: Italics

If a lot of scenes have foreign dialogue, some pros use:

All dialogue in italics is in Spanish.

An example of this in use:

INT. LIVING AREA

At least a hundred candles have been placed around the apartment. A dinner arrangement, together with flowers and more candles, await on the dining table.

All dialogue in italics is in Spanish.

JOHN

(kisses her)

Happy anniversary beautiful.


SARAH

Wow baby, this is so amazing.

(kisses him)

Happy anniversary.

Intercom system CHIMES.

JOHN

You expecting anyone?


SARAH

No...

John goes to the intercom, sees UNKNOWN (30s)--

JOHN

Yes, what is it?

Note an exchange in English was about to take place, hence the non-use of italics in the last sentence.

The advantage of this technique is that henceforth, any other scenes that use Spanish do not need to include 'All dialogue in italics is in Spanish', just use italics.

It makes for a fast, flowing read.

Technique #4: Brackets

Some pro screenwriters have a preference for using brackets instead of italics. In the script they state:

All dialogue in brackets is in Cantonese.

An example of this in use:

OTA

(You're never gettin' outta here.)

Highly successful screenwriter Steven Knight used this technique effectively in Red Circle.

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