by Tatiana López
2022 was the year creators of the Netflix show Dark finally came back with their exciting new series 1899, an amazing journey and a complete revolution in terms of language treatment that I’d describe as an incredible undertaking.
A multilingual project
From the very beginning, we see a show with more than one original language, something which may be quite shocking, especially because there aren’t just two or three languages, but 14! No doubt we are about to enjoy a highly multilingual project.
Though the original language is set as English, here is a rough breakdown of all languages involved:
- English: 42%
- German: 18%
- Danish: 16%
- French: 9%
- Spanish: 7%
- Cantonese: 4%
- Portuguese: 2%
- Polish: 1.5%
- Norwegian: 1%
- A few lines of Japanese
- One line of Italian, Romanian, Greek, and Serbian.
As translators, we always avoid originating from pivot languages, but this case is more than justified as finding an audiovisual translator who works with 14 languages seems a bit unrealistic. That is why using an English template (for subtitling) or an English dialogue list (for dubbing) is certainly the best solution.
Subtitling or dubbing?
When choosing whether to sub or dub an audiovisual product, usually plot and languages don’t come into the discussion. Anyway, both are suitable solutions, and we all choose what we enjoy more, according to our preferences.
Nevertheless, this particular case is a tricky one because if the showrunners decided to create a multilingual environment, would the fully monolingual and immersive experience that dubbing provides make any sense? While I think the original intention was to highlight the language diversity, dubbing is available for many languages even though the impact is obviously going to be absolutely different.
We should all bear this in mind because such effort on the part of the showrunners deserves all our respect. Imagine all the complications for shooting on set with an international crew of interpreters, language assistants and accent coaches because not all the actors are proficient in English. I think if the show, cast and crew are international, viewers shouldn’t miss out on such language variety because dubbing could affect the impact on the viewer.
On the show, sometimes characters don’t understand one another but they just get on with the situation by exploring other communication channels. And the way they run with it turns out to be truly natural. They speak their native language with someone who doesn’t understand, so other kinds of non-verbal communication, such as body language, take over to express their intention. It is just a matter of breaking through the language barrier by finding other ways to communicate. The way one expresses oneself has to adapt to these new situations.
There are plenty of instances like this throughout the show. In the dubs, since everyone speaks the same language, the translator needs to tweak the dialogue in order for it to make sense, while fortunately, this can be faithfully portrayed in the subs.
Subtitling 1899: A real challenge
We all know every translation project involves multiple challenges, but in terms of the use of language in story telling, 1899 is a delightful jumble. The plot is a puzzle full of riddles and mysteries, just like the languages themselves, which are simply a reflection of this wonderful mess.
In 1899, sometimes language seems to be an obstacle, but I think it is just another way to challenge the audience by showing a specific mood, background, or social status. Characters are not what they seem, and language must express this.
For example, Ramiro always speaks in Spanish with Ángel, but when he feels anxious or frightened, he turns to his mother-tongue, Portuguese. Ling Yi speaks Chinese with his mother, but she is learning Japanese to put on an exotic appearance. Elliot doesn’t speak in the first episodes, so we have to guess his origin.
There are many more examples, but in an effort to avoid spoilers, let’s just say formal and informal registers, polite and harsh tones, and fluent or broken languages are used for different purposes. For a language enthusiast, it is mind blowing when we realize that we need to pay attention to these subtle aspects of language to be able to decode a hidden message. The show is a very complicated puzzle not only in its plot, but also in the use of language. This is present right from the very beginning. It seems the purpose of the use of different languages is to reflect confusion. I remember when I saw the first episode. I was absolutely shocked because, to me, the language seemed quite modern for the setting. That was the first hint the language code needed to be deciphered as the story went on. Appearances can deceive but so can language, which constantly tricks us throughout such a mind-bending masterpiece.
By using tricky language to show different intentions, language itself defines the show’s genre. Is 1899 a period drama, a horror series, or a sci-fi show? What it is clear is that we see different and strange worlds as one, and different languages are used to communicate in a strange way. Everything seems chaotic, and genres and languages are meld ed to create that confusion. It seems that future, present and past are connected. In the show, everything is connected by language, and this is one of the many reasons it is an absolutely brilliant linguistic experience.
Everything seems chaotic, and genres and languages are meld ed to create that confusion.
It seems that future, present and past are connected. In the show, everything is connected by language, and this is one of the many reasons it is an absolutely brilliant linguistic experience.
Even the English requires close attention, because register, tone, and intention, are as important as usual, but so are fluency and accents.
On the show, native speakers communicate with non-native speakers, so the natural imperfections of broken English lend the dialogue authenticity, and thus must be replicated in subtitles. Also, quite often characters switch to their mother tongue when they cannot express themselves properly. In these cases, fluency increases.
Also, many characters speak more than one language, so subtitles must reflect when they are using their mother tongue and when they aren’t. Sometimes this is difficult, especially when certain characters are quite fluent in a second language, but one always expresses oneself more fluidly in their mother tongue. This is the case of the captain, who uses German to talk to the crew but English to talk to the passengers. Other characters, usually lower-class ones, struggle to speak English. Subtitles must reflect this because when non-verbal communication and body language overtake verbal communication, it is remarkable for a viewer to see that the combination of the two works and serves as an analogy for the plot resolution. Only when characters succeed in understanding each other are they able to make decisions and draw conclusions. They’ll survive if they work together. No one can live on their own. Thus, everyone must make an effort to understand each language.
There are rather interesting situations when someone is not quite fluent in English and must translate into their mother tongue, or when two characters who don’t speak a common language express themselves by using their mother tongue. Communication, once again, works and subtitles must reproduce this perfectly in order for the scene to be as powerful as the original.
I really think subtitlers have to adapt to all of these different situations because we cannot forget that language embodies cultures, feelings, backgrounds, intentions, and actions. 1899 touches on brain connections and language is part of who we are as individuals, just exactly as our brain.
Integrating so many original languages is inspiring and ground-breaking, but also quite challenging and complicated. The representation of so many languages is a beautiful tribute to the importance of native tongue communication as a way of being faithful to ourselves, as we all express ourselves better in our mother tongue. Watching 1899 is like traveling to different places through language, exactly what such a stimulating story does across this wonderful adventure.
Tatiana López is a freelance English to Spanish subtitle translator, QC specialist and closed captioner based in Madrid, Spain. She is a member of both ATRAE, Asociación de Traducción y Adaptación Audiovisual de España, and DAMA, Derechos de autor de Medios Audiovisuales. She has subtitled over 300 TV series and films. Her latest publication is one chapter in: Botella, Carla, and Agulló, Belén. Mujeres en la traducción audiovisual II. Nuevas tendencias y futuro en la investigación y la profesión. (Editorial Sindéresis, 2022), 139-152. Contact: : firstname.lastname@example.org https://www.linkedin.com/in/tatianalopezperez/ Portfolio: https://basededatos.atrae.org/profile/