Nordic Noir: warming Brits up to the prospect of subtitled TV?

As an office of linguists, the recent TV viewing schedule has been a dream come true. We’re hooked on Channel 4’s Cold War spy drama Deutschland ’83, and can’t wait to see what happens next on French political thriller Spin. Thanks to creepy drama Les Revenants, French language productions have been making waves in the online streaming world too, whilst Colombian Spanish has found a wider audience with Netflix original series Narcos, tracking the life of Pablo Escobar.

Amazing foreign language productions are nothing new, but the reception they are getting in Britain is certainly something worth talking about. Famed as a nation who can’t (or won’t) learn languages to any reasonable level, imported TV shows and films have traditionally had a hard time making waves on this side of the Channel.

Perhaps we’re finally seeing a turning of the tide. But why?

An argument I’ve heard time and again from friends and family protesting at my insistence that we watch a foreign language programme is that it’s ‘too hard’. “How can I concentrate on the action if I’m reading the screen?” “I’ll get distracted, because the character will be saying something different to what I’m reading” “It’s just not the same as watching in your own language”. Most of these arguments, however, are pre-conceptions based on a very limited amount of time watching foreign language productions. Most likely things that they didn’t want to watch in the first place, perhaps even hastily produced in a language lesson at school.

Enter Nordic Noir. A few years ago, translated versions of Scandinavian crime thrillers started to make big gains in the UK book market. Authors such as Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell contributed to what became something of a Scandi-movement; suddenly we started to look North East of the British Isles for all manner of popular culture and fashion choices. TV quickly followed; shows like The Killing, The Bridge and my personal favourite Borgen tapped into our fascination with the region. They were subtitled, sure, but suddenly that didn’t seem to matter.

Aha! It would seem, then, that when a genre that truly captured the British public’s imagination was presented, our preconceptions about foreign language audiovisual media fell away. They were largely baseless notions to start with; eye tracking studies have shown that viewers only concentrate on subtitles for a small percentage of the time that they’re on the screen, leaving plenty of time spare for taking in all the action. Other studies have shown an increased preference globally for subtitled English-language TV exports over dubbing, indicating that less people struggle with confusing the written language with the audio than we may assume.

So, it certainly looks like the future is bright for foreign language shows continuing to flood to these shores. This is great news for us, as language fans and as workers within the translation industry; the market for interlingual subtitling should be set to grow.