Friday, September 4, 2015

Language in Television: The Use of Russian in "The Americans"

As the end of summer quickly approaches, I've been spending my evenings watching The Americans, a television series that first debuted in 2013. If you haven't heard of this critically acclaimed show before, it's a period drama set in the 1980s that focuses on the lives of two undercover Soviet spies who appear to be living a typical American life in the suburbs with their two American-born children, when in fact they're involved in all kinds of dangerous KGB missions in order to help "Mother Russia" win the Cold War.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is the fact that its characters always seem to be speaking the language that they would naturally use in real life. In general, television shows designed for English-speaking audiences tend to avoid the use of foreign dialogue because it requires the use of subtitles. Supposedly, many viewers will simply refuse to watch such shows because they can't be bothered to read the subtitles (though who knows how true this statement actually is), so instead, most shows feature scenes in which characters speak English with terrible accents.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two key
historical figures referenced in The Americans.
However, The Americans isn't like most shows, which I find fascinating. The two main characters, played by American actress Keri Russell and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, always speak English, but it is made clear early in the series that they have been ordered never to speak Russian while living in the United States, ostensibly because this is something that an actual American would never do.

As the series progresses though, many scenes take place in the Rezidentura, the KGB office in the Soviet embassy. The characters in these scenes almost exclusively speak Russian to each other, which makes them seem much more authentic. Since most people watching the show probably don't know Russian, English subtitles are added to these scenes. I've been particularly impressed with how well they are done, especially since sentences are often broken up so that they have more of an impact.

I only know a handful of words in Russian, yet the depth of these scenes has sucked me into the story to the point that my favorite characters are the people working in the Rezidentura. It's also worth noting that almost all of the characters that regularly speak Russian in the series are native Russian speakers. On the rare occasion that television series and films do use characters that speak foreign languages, they often have a dialect coach train someone who doesn't speak the language instead of just hiring a native.

I certainly can't say that I've become an expert in the Russian language from watching The Americans, but I am slowly picking up the occasional word or two. I've also learned a bit about linguistic customs, since I was interested in the fact that the Russian-speaking characters always addressed each other using two names, such as Nina Sergeevna. After doing a bit of internet research, I learned that they were not using first and last names, but instead formally addressing each other by using the first name and the patronymic, a name based on the father's first name.

One final linguistic characteristic of the show that I've found interesting was a particular scene in which Keri Russell's character receives a cassette tape with a message in Russian from her mother. It was a particularly fascinating scene because there were no subtitles - if you don't know Russian, then you merely have to rely on Keri Russell's emotional responses in order to interpret what is being said. While she does eventually mention what was on the tape in a later scene, it did serve to show just how much information can be conveyed by facial expressions and movements.

Have you seen The Americans? What do you think of its use of Russian? Do you know of any other television series which feature characters that speak foreign languages and use subtitles? Let us know in the comments below.