OT: Two nations separated by a common language, or: Expletives don’t translate well

[An attempt to get back into blogging with something I have commented on before and which I am not conflicted about. Thanks for your toleration.]

Elton John (Taran Egerton) just before his first gig at The Troubadour, as portrayed in the movie Rocketman.

It seems like the audiences I’ve seen this film with are confused about whether it’s a comedy or a drama. I’ve heard just about everything in the cinema from broad laughter to singing to people sniffing back tears. But there are two scenes in it that call forth the same reaction every time I’ve seen it.

The first is the scene pictured above. Elton John (Taran Egerton) is ready to go on stage at The Troubadour when Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) informs him that Neil Diamond and “half the Beach Boys” are in the audience. Elton is not enthused about this news, and stomps off to the bathroom where he shuts himself in a stall. After Bernie fails to reason with him, Ray Williams (Caleb Rowe) comes into the bathroom and reminds him that Dick James has paid for the trip and concludes by saying, “Now get out there and play, you little twat!” Elton then raises his eyebrows in a very comic way, and stomps back out of the stall. However, when I’ve seen the movie the gasps always cover the laughter. “Twat” is a much heavier thing to yell at someone in the U.S. than it is in the UK, I think.

The second is the scene where Elton and Bernie are sitting in a bar with the soul singers (played by James Pennycooke, Alexia Khadime and Carl Spencer) that Elton’s band has been backing up till then, discussing Elton’s future. Bernie notes that Elton is engaged to be married. The third singer (I think, Carl Spencer), who has stolen a kiss from Elton in an earlier scene, says, “What are you going to about the fact that you’re a fag?” Elton and Bernie look at each other in confusion. I think the U.S. audience — which is familiar with this homophobic slur — probably reads the scene differently than the UK audience would. I think at this point Bernie and Elton are confused — not offended — because it’s not until Bernie says, “what?” that the third singer (Spencer?) says, “Your little friend is a homosexual” (drawing the syllables of the word out and licking his lips ostentatiously). But the U.S. audience sees the danger of the scene much more quickly than either Elton or Bernie does and may potentially read their confusion as playing for time to deal with a potentially difficult moment (something Americans do a fair amount of and did more of, fifty years ago). The film does make clear the British meaning of the word, “fag,” in a much earlier scene, but at that point there are already sniggers; I think the clarification there is also potentially misunderstood by the U.S. audience.

It’s the little differences.

~ by Servetus on June 15, 2019.

18 Responses to “OT: Two nations separated by a common language, or: Expletives don’t translate well”

  1. That’s interesting. I haven’t seen it yet. I remember as an exchange student in Australia being shocked when a boy asked if he could borrow a rubber. He was confused by my reaction and then I cracked up when two kids held out hands with the eraser he was after.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This film pushes every button I have, and I’m actually not a huge Elton John fan. But I have a particular reading of it that doesn’t seem to be shared by a lot of the critics. And it’s definitely something you could watch on a small screen.

      Ah, Australians — I found myself in an interesting web argument with one (an RA fan) years ago about whether people abroad considered Australians polite. It was eye opening. I like Australians but I find they are very direct.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie but the first comment made me laugh! We came to Canada in 1976 and after living in a small village it was a bit of a culture shock for our children to attend a school with over 1,000 pupils. One of my sons did the same thing – asked the girl behind him for a “rubber”, which is what we called it in the UK. Naturally he was highly embarrassed to find what he had asked for. Yes, different countries use very different words at times!

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  2. I grew up in the UK in the 1970’s and 1980’s and am fairly sure I would have known what fag meant. But perhaps that would be from American culture which we were very impressed by at the time.

    Ah Australians – they are like puppies in that they think they are completely loveable. I can imagine an Australian thinking they are regarded as a polite nation although when I first arrived I reeled at what I perceived as rudeness. During my first week in Sydney I witnessed two women virtually brawling over a parking space ( if this had been England there would have been a bit of head shaking and tutting and filthy looks but not a word spoken ). It took me years to adjust and sometimes I’m still gobsmacked but I have come to see it as directness rather than rudeness and I’m probably quite direct myself now.

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    • This scene is supposed to be taking place in 1969 or 1970. (I say that because the film conflates events in Elton John’s life almost as a matter of course — the scene in question conflates things that happened in 1968, 1969, and 1970.) If you see the movie let me know what you think; I think Egerton/Taupin are acting confusion at first. However — Elton John / Taupin would certainly have been immersed in US culture at that point too.

      Australians are very lovable. And very direct. I wonder about the Australian level of extroversion. I tend to perceive the Australians I meet as very extroverted but perhaps that the setting. I don’t necessarily think the English method of silent disapproval is better — but it’s a noticeable contrast!

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      • Before my time then – I would have been extremely precocious to have known the word in 1968! I haven’t seen the film yet – I’m a bit time poor – but it’s on my list as everyone I know who has seen it has recommended it.

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  3. A Canadian guy I know tells a story of when he was teaching teenagers in England. He asked one of the girls to take her fanny pack off. Everyone gasped and he was totally confused, not having realized that in England a “fanny” refers to a girl’s “front bottom”!

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  4. Twat in the UK is a mild, rather old-fashioned term of abuse – maybe formed from ‘twit’ and ‘prat’. Fag has had the double-meaning for as long as I remember but I don’t know if it was used in the early 70s ( I was too small and innocent).
    I don’t like Elton John at all but enjoy music biopics ( likewise Freddie Mercury & Bohemian Rhapsody) but I loved Rocket Man. I don’t remember the audience finding it particularly funny – I didn’t. I would be interested in your reading of it – and btw happy new blogging Servetus.

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    • Oh and of course RA said an affectionate “You twats” in the Impressionists blooper

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    • I’ve seen it an improbable number of times, both to dad being away and then the fact that there’s an 11:05 showing and dad is usually soundly asleep by then and the very latest show is discounted. My position on Elton John before this was neutral. I may have owned a CD copy of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in the 00s, and I wouldn’t turn the radio dial if a song came on but I wouldn’t look for it either. I thought this a substantially better film than Bohemian Rhapsody, which I thought was okay but nothing to write home about.

      The first time I saw it was an advance sneak peak — mostly because the cinema chain offered me a free ticket. The theatre was packed and the audience was really appreciative and there were laughs throughout — a lot of times at the campy gay moments, but also even at things EJ was saying in the therapy sessions. That’s happened once or twice more. But I also saw it once where the people next to me were obviously crying (I have cried in places while watching it).

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      • The audience really does make a difference to how we respond to films – for better or worse. I was moved by it certainly and also wondered if it was appropriate to fancy Billy Elliot.

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  5. You really need to look up British Slang or British sayings to see how different things are Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even the words that are equivalent have different weights — there’s a scene where Elton John says, “I’ve been a cunt since 1975,” and that is a really heavy expletive around here, whereas it certainly isn’t in England.

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  6. It depends, it’s still quite a shocking word in the UK – although it is creeping in more to mainstream TV as a shock mechanism, to replace the now mild ‘fuck’.

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  7. I teach 8th grade language arts and every year before we do Shakespeare I have a Shakespearean insult competition. Kids get a list of acceptable words to creatively craft an insult ala Shakespeare so I don’t get bad language. One of the words on the list is “twit”. In the heat of competition (which gets very dramatic) one young man called another a string of insults that ended in a loud, emphatic TWAT! We all almost fell off our chairs and both young men turned bright red. He was very careful to pronounce it correctly in round 2

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