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Lights! Camera! Subtitles!

Jul, 2016
Guest contribution by Isobel Hamilton

“I can’t read while I’m also trying to see things!”

This line from Channel 4’s The IT Crowd sums up the view which was a staple punchline for many 90s stand-up comedians: namely, that men hate subtitles. I’ve tried to trace the origins of this particular male stereotype; I thought perhaps it had something to do with the cliché that men can’t multi-task, or that foreign language TV is considered to be more ‘artsy,’ and therefore belongs to the domain of women. Truth be told none of the theories I could come up with held much water, maybe men hating subtitles is one of those stereotypes that was born of so many micro-factors that its birth was all but spontaneous. But whatever the origins of subtitle hatred, the future of subtitled shows has never been brighter.

It was long believed by network execs that subtitled television was ‘unwatchable’ and therefore not commercially viable. However for the last five years or so this trend has been slowly but steadily bucked as subtitles become ever more at home in mainstream television. So what lies behind this new trend for subtitle-tolerance?

US shows with a multi-lingual twist

The year 2000 saw the dawn of a new millennium, and with it came the first majorly popular bilingual US TV show. Dora the Explorer may lack subtitles, but it is an indication of what has been a driving force in multi-lingual programming in the US, Spanish. The Hispanic population in the US has exploded in recent years: in the 2010 census, people of Hispanic and Latino descent made up 16.3% of the country’s population, and that figure is ever growing. This has made an impact US television, with more and more shows erring away from the classic ‘English spoken with thick accent = foreign language’ paradigm. Hit shows like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black do not shy away from subtitling when Spanish-speaking characters are in conversation with each other. It may not be the main language of these shows, but its presence is significant and important to the naturalism of the pieces. Orange is the New Black also features guest appearances from a host of other languages including: Chinese, Creole, German, Pennsylvania Dutch and Russian. Their inclusion lends authenticity to the distinct diversity of characters in the show.

Between Fantasy and Reality

One particular hit US show went above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to subtitling. Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy world where the majority of the characters speak ‘the Common Tongue’ (better known to you or me as ‘English’) but the producers decided that to best convey the sense of a whole world, complete with different ethnicities and cultures, they needed some new languages to go with it. To this end they hired David J. Peterson (co-founder of the Language Creation Society) as the show’s ‘language consultant.’ So far he’s created three languages for the show: High Valyrian, Low Valyrian and Dothraki – all complete with grammar and vocab. Subtitled scenes of the characters speaking in these invented languages are common and often used to highlight cultural differences between characters through quirks of ‘translation,’ e.g. when one character tries to explain the word ‘throne’ to her Dothraki husband, whose culture has no concept of such an object.

This may seem like a lot of extra effort for a show that is already weighed down with the challenges of a huge cast, spectacular sets and eye-watering CGI. However, far from undermining the grandeur of the piece, the subtitles add to it. Game of Thrones has always endeavoured to brutally demythologise medieval-style fantasy, and the multi-lingual aspect is one of the realistic touches that help ground the show. It makes Geroge R. R. Martin’s world of dragons, ice-zombies and magic napalm that much more believable, even more enjoyable.


Scandinavian Noir (also called Scandi-Noir or Nordic Noir) has become massively popular in the UK. Crime shows and thrillers from the Scandinavian countries with their dark storylines, flawed protagonists and desaturated colour palette, have become a genre in their own right. Arguably the trend was kicked off by The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, and followed up by greats such as Wallander, The Killing and The Bridge. The language is as much part of Scandi-Noir as the grizzly murders, and although many of the shows have received English-language remakes, the original Scandinavian language versions remain fiercely popular. The Bridge is a particularly ambitious example, as it is split between two Scandinavian languages, Danish and Swedish. However its ambition paid off, and a total of two million Brits tuned in when the third season aired in the UK.

Internet Streaming

Streaming services such as Netflix have made subtitling into multiple languages so much easier to broadcast. Rather than having to sell multiple subtitled versions of shows to different broadcasters in different countries, you offer a single platform from which viewers can select the language of their choice. This makes it much easier for Netflix to produce multi-lingual TV shows (such as Orange is the New Black) because as the characters move between different languages, there’s no subtitles suddenly clashing with each other on-screen, it can all be kept in one fluid language. Furthermore streaming sites have further facilitated access to subtitled English-language TV for non-English speakers. Conversely, streaming services are increasingly marketing non-English programming to the Anglophone market, with Netflix producing and promoting its own non-English original shows such as Narcos (Spanish) and Marseille (French). Britain’s Channel 4 has jumped on the foreign-language-drama-train and are now promoting a section of their catch-up site called Walter Presents, which is entirely dedicated to foreign language drama ‘box sets’ from a wide range of countries, from Brazil to Poland to Czech Republic.

It’s unclear whether there is a direct causal link between the recent flourishing of subtitles and comedians easing up on them as an object of ridicule. Perhaps the material – like aeroplane food, ex wives and whatever ‘the deal’ is – became too worn out for them to keep re-hashing, and so the social cliché went long enough without being reinforced that it gave foreign language TV the break it needed. Or perhaps the reverse is true, that the breakout success of subtitled shows in spite of social stereotype robbed the jokes of their funniness, as the idea that subtitles turn people off became so obviously wrong. Of course, I speak about a relative minority of programmes, the vast majority of programming in the US and UK remains English-speaking, and there are still those who resent the idea of having to read and watch at the same time. Nevertheless the recent success of subtitled content is encouraging, perhaps indicating a viewership that is more open-minded to foreign-language TV – at least when it comes to drama and thrillers. There remains of course the translator’s final frontier … comedy.

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