I recently read Bruce Grant’s The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus, which talked about a lot of interesting things but was a little too larded with jargon and Theory for my full reading enjoyment. But on page 120 he cleared up a problem that has been bothering me for years, ever since I first saw Sergei Bodrov‘s 1996 movie Кавказский пленник (Englished as both the literal Prisoner of the Caucasus and as Prisoner of the Mountains): what language(s) is/are the non-Russian characters speaking? I knew enough Georgian to recognize a few words and phrases, but a lot of it clearly wasn’t Georgian. Grant writes: “One sign that the film is squarely intended for Russian audiences is the curious contradiction between the consistent flow of subtitles and the “mountain of tongues” shared by the actors playing Caucasian characters—the captor’s daughter speaks to her father in Azeri, her father answers in Georgian, their kinsmen address them in Avar, and so forth.” An odd way of doing things, but at least next time I watch the movie I’ll know what I’m hearing.


  1. This is indeed helpful to know. We knew the father spoke Georgian, and his daughter non-Georgian. I imagine this was the most natural thing to do given that the actors Bodrov wanted to use weren’t all Georgian. I imagine he thought by far the greater share of viewers would experience it as the “prisoner” does — all just a sea of foreign sound.
    I’ve long wondered as well about the film “Mongol.” If the lead actor (playing Chingiz Khan) is Japanese, is he speaking Mongolian? and the supporting character, Jamukha, is played by a Chinese actor. What language does he speak?
    Can anyone enlighten me?

  2. It’s not uncommon for the Native American actors in Westerns (those not old-fashioned enough to use white actors and the English language exclusively) to be speaking Navajo or Lakota, and usually saying something very different from the subtitles, generally along the lines of “insulting and hilarious”. When the films were later aired on the reservation, the laughter among the audience didn’t exactly fit the plot.

  3. John Emerson says

    The Boston bombers had a Chechen father, an Avar mother, and Kazakh accomplices after the fact.

  4. since the movie was for the mongolian audience too the actors speak in mongolian, a bit simplified and in heavy accents but understandable if i recall correctly, sounded as if like it’s translation from english or perhaps japanese, though if japanese it would sound a little more naturally flowing perhaps, due to the similar sentence structures, i guess, just to substitute the words
    i liked the japanese movie too, not _Mongol_, with a different title, released a little later, the actors speak in japanese there, sounds very natural as if they speak in mongolian, a well studied script i thought, i mean, perhaps any human language could be fully translated/translateable into the other, if done well, as if like speaking telepathically

  5. oh, i recalled _Mongol_ was Bodrov starshii ‘s movie, not japanese, so the script was perhaps or most definitely in english, for the international crew, i guess

  6. Almost all English-language movies about the Russians have them talk some gibberish, with subtitles saying completely different things. It’s always fun to watch.

  7. The Onkilons in the Sannikov Land speak Kazakh.

  8. oh i love the song from _Zemlya Sannikova_, about “est’ tol’ko mig”
    not in the movie itself, but Dal’s version, great poetry, very buddhist like imo 🙂
    Danzanravjaa was writing about this too, his verses feel exactly like this, for me at least, some hundred years before, all the buddhist treatises say something similar i guess though
    i tried to translate his two poems, on my fb, but all the rhymes and words harmony get lost in translation, so it sounds too simple and common in english, plus errors and mistakes in my english introduced into it doesnt make it any readable i guess, maa, popytka ne pytka

  9. the moviemakers using the “Other”‘s language as if like anything the simplest and convenient for them solution undermine their own work imo and show/reveal the racist tendencies in their overall work/life attitude too, such a pity, if it was intended a serious work, not just mindless entertainment
    but not maybe in Bodrov’s movie, i haven’t seen it, so don’t know, why the ethnic actors speak different languages depicting a single family, if something it would have felt not even “an odd practice”, but all that, not only “naplevatel’skoe otnoshenie k delu” as russians would say, “whatever, nobody cares” like attitude, but the general attitude of russians to “k litsam kavkazskoi narujnosti”, very very off-putting
    but it seemed he was a thoughtful person, so must be it had some other deeper symbolic meaning, too bad, the best always go first

  10. It’s not uncommon for the Native American actors in Westerns . . .
    And then there’s Mel Brooks. I’ll bet Edward Sapir would have understood him, uh, natively. Probably Joseph Greenberg too.

  11. read, do you really think it helps to throw “racist” around so freely? It’s a serious accusation, but you seem to default to it whenever there’s something you don’t like or think should have been done differently.

  12. so freely? i think the sentiments i express which you find usually ” too free” are not expressed often enough
    dont you think the moviemakers allow themselves already too much freedom there, if they don’t like the complaints they would have worked maybe a little more thoughtful to avoid such ‘critique’, not just try to appease to whoever the main to be entertained public’s cravings for the “funny” at someone else’s expense, or show that “soidet i tak” – “whatever” attitude
    and i said i am not about the Bodrovs’ movies, the impression is you dont read my comments until the end

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