What to Do and Not to Do When Localizing: Three Case Studies

Mark Olmsted
7 min readFeb 16, 2023
1899

You’d think that more thinking would go into the use of foreign languages in films and TV shows in an era of media globalization, but there is an epidemic of illogic in so many streaming series that it can severely mar the viewing experience of anyone, like me, who has a thing for believability.

Let me what illustrate what I mean by citing some examples.

1) “1899” — When the show should never be dubbed — only subtitled.

The recent 10-episode 1899, an eerie supernatural saga set on an ocean liner, has a very early scene set in the ship’s dining room in which the very international cast of principal characters is introduced, all speaking their native languages, so, subtitled in English (except when English is spoken, of course.) As no one seems to speak any but their native tongue, this introduces the powerful theme of mutual unintelligibility in this unfolding fictional world. In case we missed this point, there is a pair of brothers posing as Castilian priests, and when one starts speaking loudly, the other raises his voice to hush him. The response from his irritable brother (in Spanish): “Why? It’s not like anybody can understand me!”

Soon after, a young man comes up from the third-class section of the ship pleading for help in Danish — which no one comprehends apart from the word “doktor.” This is the specific vocation of Maura Franklin, 1899’s lead female protagonist. Seeking to help, she descends into steerage to encounter a woman in the middle of a difficult labor. It’s a breech birth and the baby must be turned. The woman’s family is suspicious of a female doctor and almost refuses her help, and the fact that Maura doesn’t speak Danish and the Danes don’t speak English is crucial to the tension of the scene. Only a little girl seems to intuit Maura’s questions, for example, how many months the suffering patient has been pregnant. Luckily, Maura is able to turn the baby and relieve her patient’s suffering– but also establishes a bond between herself and the helpful little girl which is important to the story.

In a later scene, the Spanish “priest” who spoke loudly in the dining room is picked to join a team to investigate the ghost ship they’ve discovered. He protests to…

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Mark Olmsted

Author, "Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir" about my time behind bars. See GQ dot com “Curious Cons of the Man Who Wouldn’t Die” for story of how I got there.