I was given a DVD of one of my favorite movies, Godard’s Contempt, for Christmas, and I watched it this evening. Among the many striking features of the movie (such as the opening credits being given in voiceover, in Godard’s inimitable rasp, rather than printed on the screen) is its multilingual nature; much of it consists of discussions between an American producer, a German director, and a French screenwriter, with occasional interactions with the Italian crew, and these discussions are made possible by the translator, Francesca, who is constantly rendering what we have just heard in English into French or vice versa (and on at least one occasion translating a remark before it has been made, a neat trick for which translators should get extra pay). It may be annoying to the average moviegoer, but it’s catnip to the polyglot. (And it’s worth the price of admission just to see Fritz Lang play European Culture Besieged By American Vulgarity—which reminds me, there is one glaring error in the newly done subtitles: when the producer says “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my checkbook,” Lang responds “Les Hitlériens disaient: ‘mon révolver’,” which the subtitles render “The Italians used to say ‘my revolver'”!)

Addendum. I suppose I should explain the context of the “culture” reference for those who don’t know it. There is a famous quote, usually given as “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun” and attributed to either Goering or (less often) Goebbels. Whether or not Goering ever said it (he may have been fond of quoting it, or it may have been attracted to the more famous, and thus memorable, source), it originally comes from Act I, Scene I of Hanns Johst’s play Schlageter (first performed for Hitler’s birthday in 1933): “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” (‘When I hear “culture,” I release the safety catch on my Browning [revolver pistol — thanks, Anton]!’).


  1. Roll on the translator epics! At a depressing number of business meetings, the interpreter is the only intelligent person there. It becomes chillingly clear how many people could be sacked without any loss to any of the participating organisations.

    Happy New Year from the Great Plain!

  2. Muddle the two versions of the Nazi `culture’ crack, and you get what Pat Buchanan allegedly said a few years back (context alas forgotten) – something about releasing the safety on our revolvers, memorable because revolvers lack safety-catches.

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  5. I don’t know why I didn’t mention the Mission of Burma song “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” back in 2003, but I’m doing it now.

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