Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

Standard

As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.

Beszél magyarul?

Standard

An interesting overlap between the latest season of the TV show Louie and my work trip to Budapest has been this Hungarian connection. Louie begins to date a Hungarian woman this season. They can’t communicate – she speaks no English. She speaks quite a lot of Hungarian during the show. No subtitles. We are not meant to understand – and probably to assume and “grope” as much as Louie has to. I, of course, don’t speak Hungarian. Just before departing for Budapest, though, I started paging through my old Hungarian textbooks, and read an article on a website that tried to position Hungarian as “a language as easy as any other”. I learned a few fundamentals that actually were never explained well in textbooks – including a piece of information that helped in trying to figure out which bottles of water were carbonated and which were not (later I discovered that the color on the bottle could just as well have decoded that little mystery – but hey, I worked with what I knew!). In one of the latest episodes of Louie when the Hungarian woman started chatting with a Hungarian-speaking waiter, I was happy to understand a few words (basic!) – but the whole feeling produced by Louie’s relationship with this woman he could not understand (and who could not understand him) was certainly a hallmark of the Louie “sitcom” style. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a comedy show. It lacks linear storytelling, goes in sometimes strange, unusual and even sometimes boring directions – but the fact that it dares to do so is what makes it unique. There has been a good deal of everything from discomfort to controversy generated by the show this season (e.g. attempted rape, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.”) and some meandering – but it’s Louie. It’s what I’ve come to expect, even if in expectation, I can’t predict anything. On a side note, Charles Grodin showing up as a doctor in Louie’s building has been highly enjoyable. “Enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for god’s sake! Pick up the dog poop, would you please?* Lucky son of a bitch, I haven’t had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me when I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again. You know I’m not really sure what your name is. But you may be the single most boring person I have ever met. No offense.” My final thought after returning from Budapest (apart from having noticed a plethora of coffeehouses – a dream for a coffee lover like me) was its continued clinging to a complete lack of service-mindedness, reminiscent of Communist-era eastern Europe. It may have improved slightly since I last visited Budapest in 1999, and it might not even be an eastern bloc thing so much as part of the mentality of the Hungarians (since people working in the services now would not have been that exposed to and trained in “customer service” of the past). Everywhere I went – and everywhere many of my colleagues went – we’d ask for something very normal (e.g. exchanging money at a money-exchange desk or asking a normal question in a store), and the employee(s) would give a short, uninformative answer and stare/glare at me (or whomever) as though I had just asked the dumbest question in the history of questions. How could I have been so stupid? In one coffee place, there was a sign by the cash register in English, which read: “We only accept euros” (and then something about the denominations of euros accepted). I found this misleading – it should probably have been clearer that they accept euros in addition to their own currency (the forint), so I asked about it (dummy!), and the barista looked at me like I had just dumped a bag of dog shit on the floor and just repeated the amount I owed her (in forints). (Incidentally my favorite coffee place – maybe due to its convenience in the place I stayed in the city during non-work-conference days – is Coffee Cat. Not the place that had the misleading “only euros” sign!) Sigh. The fun of traveling to different places.

everything's gone kuka - budapest

*everything’s gone kuka – budapest – another coincidence

Not a Salesman

Standard

I have never been a big fan of the concept of sales or salesmen – my first clear memories of how I perceive most career salespeople can be summed up in the character of Herb Tarlek on the TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Inept, laying it on way too thick to mask insecurity and total lack of competence. My experience with salespeople ever since has only reinforced these ideas.

(about 1:20 in)

Metric – “On a Slow Night” “Tell me what did that salesman do to you?”

Of course, it’s one thing when you’re buying a milkshake from a teenager at Baskin-Robbins. It is entirely another thing when dealing with corporate hucksters and peddlers. I once went to the aforementioned Baskin-Robbins with a friend, and one of us ordered a peach smoothie or something similar, and the boy working there chuckled and said something about, “You know what too much fruit can do to you?” implying something about the laxative properties of fiber-rich fruits. He may even have gone to the extreme of spelling it out for us. I don’t remember. Either way, he was a high school kid slinging ice cream – and it did not require a whole lot of salesmanship since his customers were already in the door. (He would have done well, though, to refrain from discussion of bodily functions and excretions.) Same applies to the small-town restaurant where the waiter discouraged my friend from ordering panna cotta because it was, in his words, “an old-person dessert”. I don’t know – if I may borrow a crass page from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream boy – verbal diarrhea does not help your cause if you want to sell. You cannot sell if you are prone to saying every random thought that comes to mind.

All this is well and good – I don’t expect the pinnacle of polish, presentation and salesmanship from high school kids and those who may not even have finished high school. What I do expect is that when someone becomes a professional salesman, they ought to have mastered what to say and not to say in any number of situations. Years ago, my mom went to a Subaru dealership, and was looking at a Forester. The salesman told her she would not want that because “it’s a lesbian car”?!

He had no way of knowing whether my mom was a lesbian or not. What better way to put your foot in your mouth and ensure that you will not get a sale! He had no idea who he was talking to. A lesbian? Someone who is offended by any discussion of sexual orientation (because it has no place in the sale of a car!)? Someone who would be horrified by the idea of being perceived as a lesbian? No matter how you slice it, the guy neutered himself because there was no way that what he said was appropriate or lending itself to a sale or sales lead. My mom was offended that he made any assumptions and decided to discuss inappropriate things with a complete stranger on the sales floor. She never went back. A few years later when she was looking to buy a new car, she went to another dealership (not Subaru) and the same salesman was working there – she decided against buying a car there first and foremost because of his presence.

I won’t even start talking about the professional salespeople I had to work with in a previous job. Maybe there was nothing explicitly wrong with most of them, but I definitely dreaded the annual sales seminar I was forced to attend. Nothing could bring me down faster than that dog and pony show.

And me – I live and work on the periphery of sales in marketing and try to stay on the less shady side of marketing. I remember when I used to meet people and they would tell me they worked in marketing, it set off alarm bells and waved red flags. A guy saying, “I work in marketing” just sounds like a neat way to legitimately say, “I deal in bullshit”. And now, professionally, I am right in the thick of it.