‘Jane The Virgin,’ ‘The Americans’ Lead Charge of American TV Showcasing Characters’ Cultures Through Multiple Languages

Jane the Virgin The American Bilingual
Courtesy of The CW/FX

As television series scramble to feature characters who better reflect America’s cultural melting pot, so too have creators and executive producers come to realize that not all the people they’re depicting would (and should) speak English.

Jennie Snyder Urman knew it was important for both equality and accuracy’s sake to include Spanish in a show about a multi-generational Latin family when she wrote the pilot for her comedy-drama, “Jane the Virgin,” which is now in its fourth season on the CW. When there was a moment of hesitation about keeping it in before filming started, star Gina Rodriguez and other cast members promised her that it is completely realistic to have a Venezuela-born grandmother (Ivonne Coll’s Alba) listen to her American-born offspring speak in English, but answer them in Spanish.

“I like how it’s the way many families speak, whether it’s Spanish or [something else],” says Urman, who understands Spanish but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking it herself. “It’s different languages and it’s part of our culture and I’m glad to put another language on TV for an American audience because that’s the world.

“I like how organic it is to our show, but also that it’s organic to the family and organic to America.”

To aid the non-Spanish speakers in its audience, “Jane the Virgin” uses subtitles. This technique, along with the series’ proclivity for quippy hashtags and conversations over typed-out text messages that pop up on the screen, force viewers to pay attention. In our multitasking world, this can be invaluable for TV writers competing with distractions like second-screen viewing (even if they are sometimes the ones who are doing some real-time tweeting).

Similarly, “The Americans” showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg admit their FX drama, a Cold War-era spy show in which it’s not uncommon for characters to share pivotal pieces of dialogue in Russian, isn’t the best show to watch on laundry night. When their series premiered in 2013, the men fretted over not only how many subtitles to use, but also the size and color of the text. Now, as they are preparing the show’s sixth and final season, they feel as though they have a pact with an audience that has grown to expect the language shift.

What hasn’t been as easy, they say, is ensuring a verbatim translation. The writers work tirelessly with translator Masha Gessen to ensure both the colloquialisms and historical accuracy of the text.
“One of the things we’re really proud about is when we meet native Russian speakers and they say they like the Russian on the show,” Weisberg says. “It’s not because we love our Russian-speaking actors and our brilliant Russian translator, which we do. Our show, in a lot of ways, rests on authenticity. For us, even if an American audience might not 100% consciously know the difference, we feel like each of these elements adds up to the emotional authenticity of the show.”
Fields adds that the primary goal is to “tell the most compelling story and the language does not need to matter.”

“We don’t worry about losing people,” he says of the regularity with which Russian is used in the show. “Just like in any show, you would break up scenes with a certain character that you don’t want in a room just for dramatic reasons.”

As streaming services and premium outlets fight for hot foreign titles, it’s likely that subtitling will become more commonplace. Fields was captivated by the Israeli-Palestinian drama “Fauda” when it aired on Netflix earlier this year. “Part of what was great about it was that it took place in multiple languages so that you really felt the emotional truth of the characters,” he says.

Still, it’s quite delicious when series opt to turn off subtitling altogether and force audiences to fend for themselves. ABC’s now-defunct “American Crime” toyed with this, particularly in its final season, which dealt with the migrant workers who live among us. And comedies including Netflix’s “Master of None” and “Orange Is the New Black” have also played with the fish-out-of-water dynamic of English-speaking characters suddenly immersed in an environment in which the language is not one they fully understand (subtitles sometimes included).

A particularly memorable scene from the previous season of “Jane the Virgin,” for example, centered on Yael Grobglas’ Petra, who speaks English and Czech, not fully understanding Jaime Camil’s Mexican-American accent as Rogelio.

“It’s really about perception and who you’re with,” Urman says of that scene. Conversely, “he can’t understand a word Petra’s saying because she talks so fast.”

So has Urman considered doing an episode of “Jane the Virgin” that’s completely in Spanish?

“I haven’t,” she ponders. “But that’s interesting. Maybe.”