Bilingual Filming: In The Quest Of Wider Audiences

October 26, 2017 by Alison Tunley

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Scandinavian crime dramas hit the big time over recent years with series such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen making subtitled TV dramas a mainstream phenomenon. Another success story in the “Nordic noir” genre has taken a very different approach to reaching audiences with different languages. The Welsh detective drama series Hinterland (or Y Gwyll, as it is in Welsh) was simultaneously filmed in both Welsh and English by the same set of actors.

In fact, strictly speaking three linguistic versions were made of the series. One version was filmed entirely in Welsh for broadcast on the Welsh-language television channel S4C. A second version was made predominantly in English, but with certain sections of dialogue in Welsh with English subtitles for distribution to the rest of the UK. And finally, an entirely English language version was made for an international audience. The series was first aired in 2013 and has been critically acclaimed. It has been sold to 150 countries including a run on Netflix which brought it to a North American audience.

The work involved in producing all these different versions is not inconsiderable. Hours of filming and then re-filming a scene in one language, followed by retakes in the other language. Although adding to the workload, writer and co-producer Ed Talfan cites a benefit “ in a strange way, you get to know each scene better because you spend longer with it. Sometimes the actors like the process for that reason”.

Interestingly lead actor Richard Harrington does not consider himself to be fluent in Welsh, despite having attended a Welsh-language school. He feels more at home in English, in contrast to his co-star Mali Harries who speaks Welsh at home with her husband and family. Harrington also highlights differences between the Welsh and English language versions, saying “scenes can end a lot quicker in Welsh … and because it’s more poetic and colourful, you can say some things with a word or even a look. You can’t try to do exactly in Welsh what you did in English.” The series creator Ed Thomas agrees: “They are different films.” he says  “Even though they are literal translations, they have different strengths and nuances.”

In the early talkie film era, multiple-language versions (or MLVs) were quite common, but most of these used different actors for the different languages even if the sets, crew and costumes were recycled. What marks Hinterland out as unusual is the fact that the same actors filmed both sets of dialogue. The most prominent other recent example I have found of this is the Oscar-nominated account of Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition, Kon-Tiki, which was filmed simultaneously in Norwegian and English. In this case, the English language version came about on the insistence of German financial backers who claimed it would make the film more marketable internationally. The director described it as “like having to catch lightning in a bottle twice” and clearly felt it was at best making a virtue of a necessity.

As for S4C film productions, the success of Hinterland has already prompted another project using the bilingual filming format. Keeping Faith / Un bore Mercher began production this year and will premiere in Welsh this autumn with the English language version reaching BBC Wales viewers early next year. And this autumn S4C breaks new ground with its bilingual Welsh-English crime drama Bang which will switch between Welsh and English within each episode, reflecting the reality of life in a bilingual Welsh community. Welsh-speakers will be able to enjoy each episode without subtitles, while non-Welsh speakers can view the repeat or iPlayer versions with assistance from subtitles.


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