Multilingual TV: is it really so hard, people? (a mini-rant)

Living with (someone else’s) Netflix account has been exhilerating – oh, the glorious world of easy-access television! (I’m very much a member of my generation: who even has a TV in their apartment, let alone actually pays for cable?). Thanks to this, I’ve been doing some exploring – which has had its ups and downs.

Like most people with souls, I’ve loved Orange Is the New Black since its inception – although I will admit that there are times when I love OINB more for the idea of it (women of all shapes, sizes, and colours AND queer sexualities AND bilingualism all on my screen at the same time – WHAT IS THIS HEAVEN?) than for its actual self – not unlike one’s first highschool crush.

In a similar linguistic vein, I loved that Netflix didn’t shy away from bilingual dialogue in Narcos (more thoughts on that here) and that (despite its many other flaws, including but not limited to the obnoxious all-American voice over) Spanish-speaking characters actually spoke to each other in Spanish instead of inexplicable and heavily accented English, as is so often the case.

Unfortunately, then Netflix and I began to have some problems. I watched Sense8 and was driven to distraction by all the various non-anglophone characters speaking to each other in inexplicable and heavily accented English for the first third of the season. If you have two Germans talking with each other in Germany why would they be speaking in English? But I was willing to suspend my disbelief when it became clear that the Wachowskis were saving non-English dialogue for specific multilingual mix-ups between their international cast of characters (If you haven’t seen Sense8 then this won’t make much sense, but there’s no way I’m explaining a plot that convoluted in this post). I didn’t like it (mostly because I wanted to practice my German/Spanish) but it made sense for the universe. Fine.


There’s never a bad time for a picture of Miss Fisher and Dot. Haven’t seen it yet? Drop everything right now.

But then along came Marco Polo. To be perfectly honest, I was never a huge fan of the show, but I live with a fan (a fan who has good-naturedly sat through many, many rewatchings of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) and the costumes and sets really are absolutely incredible – which is generally enough to make me sit (albeit grudgingly) through a season of anything.

What annoyed me from the very beginning – other than the uninspired dialogue, ehhh pacing, and a central character whose good looks were equaled only by his utter inanity – was the fact that the show was set in Italy and China and yet everyone was speaking English to each other. Now, yes, North American TV (and film) often smushes everything into English no matter the setting and just expects the viewers to suspend their disbelief. But Netflix had set this wonderful multilingual precedent! Here was another chance for them to expand their multilingual TV offerings! It’s not like North America doesn’t also have a huge Chinese-American population that could enjoy an English-Mandarin and/or Cantonese show! I was so excited! This is literally the reason why I started watching it at all!

I was badly let down.

Now, I’m no expert on Kublai Khan’s court. The internet tells me Kublai’s dynasty had a unified script for Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese and that he and his successors spoke only conversational Chinese – so I’m guessing most things happened in Mongolian. However, if you have Italian actors playing Italians in Italy and Chinese (or, at the very least, Chinese-American) actors playing Chinese/Mongolian characters in China/Mongolia couldn’t we come to some sort of compromise? Couldn’t we have the Italians speaking Italian to each other (the few times that that actually happens) and the (many) Chinese characters speaking Mandarin to each other and then use English as a stand in for Mongolian? Get creative people! (I get that finding that many English-speaking actors who also speak Mongolian might be more than Netflix was willing to do). Alas, apparently any sort of multilingualism was more than Netflix was willing to do.


Netflix apparently thought they needed to name the show after a white guy in order to make you want to watch it, even though (thank God) it’s actually about this guy – the much more interesting Kublai Khan.

To make matters worse, some of the Chinese and Mongolian characters are played by actors who have just the absolute most American accents you’ve ever heard in your life. That sort of broad, hint-of-a-twang, I-Am-An-American accent that, if nothing else, ensures that we Canadians will never mistake them for one of our own (which I have occasionally been known to do with West Coast Americans). Which is not to say that I have anything against Americans or their various accents. I really don’t. But there’s a time and a place, people! And the Mongol empire just is not it (Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that one of the worst offenders, Rick Yune – who plays Kublai’s cousin or uncle or what-have-you male relative – actually has Mongolian heritage).


So, fine. Netflix couldn’t be bothered to do a bilingual English-Chinese show. I was dealing my disappointment. But then, to wrap up this much-longer-than-anticipated rant, there came the Send-Away-The-Mongol Incident. Marco Polo’s slimy father returns to the show and is promptly kidnapped (for no particularly good reason and to no particularly useful end) by Marco and his BFF Byamba, one of Kublai’s many illegitimate sons. Ostensibly, Marco is trying to squeeze information out of his father about the Christian army that has recently turned up on Kublai’s doorstep. His father, in a show of pointless bravado, says (and I paraphrase), “Sure, fine, but send away your Mongol sidekick. I don’t want him listening to us talk.”

Which doesn’t work on a) a plot level because of course Marco is going to share everything he gets from his father anyway, but also b) on a linguistic level because, as my boyfriend pointed out in more or less these exact words (and doing an admirable impression of me yelling at the TV while he was at it): YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY SPEAKING ENGLISH, YOU IDIOT. YOU’RE AN ITALIAN SPEAKING ITALIAN TO ANOTHER ITALIAN* IN FRONT OF A MONGOLIAN WHO SPEAKS MONGOLIAN (AND MAYBE SOME FORM OF CHINESE) AND WHO ALREADY DOESN’T UNDERSTAND A WORD YOU’RE SAYING SO THERE’S NO NEED TO WORRY, IS THERE?

So, there you have it. The whole point of this long, mostly unnecessary rant.

Dear Netflix/TV producers of the world: if you’re not going to give us multilingual television (although you really should) and instead demand that we suspend our disbelief and pretend that all these Americans (or British – there’s another post: why are Nazi officers so often portrayed by Brits in English-language films?) are actually speaking <insert language here> instead of English then at least do it in a way that maintains your universe’s integrity. Or soon we’ll all be yelling at our TV.

*Technically, Marco and his father probably actually spoke Venetian (a separate Romance language that was apparently the Mediterranean lingua franca for the duration of the Venetian Republic) and not what we would consider “Italian”, which, I think, is actually based on the Tuscan dialect and yes, I am complete dork, thankyouverymuch.




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