8:30 pm EDT, June 24, 2018

How ‘Westworld’s’ use of subtitles is breaking cultural barriers

Westworld is revolutionary on many levels, but its most interesting achievement is its daring use of multiple languages — and how it’s getting English-speaking audiences accustomed to subtitles.

Westworld’s second season has been stunning, to say the least. The story has continued to expand in ways we never would have expected, and every new character we’ve been introduced to is making the show more complex and engaging.

The most eye-catching episodes, no doubt, have been the two that gave us a glimpse of surrounding park cultures we hadn’t seen before: in 2×05 “Akane No Mai,” we visited Shogun World and saw an episode that was almost entirely in Japanese, and in 2×08 “Kiksuya,” we learned the story of one of the Ghost Nation riders, almost entirely in Lakota.

Related: How bilingualism in movies is changing our cultural perception

westworld kiksuya

It would have been easy for Westworld to make both these episodes in English, and explain the language away as a part of the parks; but that’s not what they did. Instead, viewers were forced to read subtitles when the characters were speaking, creating an unusual feeling of immersion in a different culture that is rare on Western television.

The fact is that most audiences in America simply aren’t used to having to read subtitles. With most mainstream movies and TV shows shying away from using more than a few lines of foreign (or indigenous) languages at a time, hearing, English-speaking audiences just don’t have to read subtitles to enjoy movies and shows.

This marks a very different experience from the rest of the world. Countries where English is not the main language are widely accustomed to subtitles, and though dubbed films and television are obviously more convenient, especially for people who aren’t able to read quickly, watching subtitled films is rapidly becoming the preferred way to enjoy movies.

westworld akane

Many loyal movie and TV-watchers in South America, for example, prefer subbed over dubbed films for multiple reasons: they like to listen to the real voices of their favorite actors, they feel more immersed in the real sound of the film, and they use it as an opportunity to learn English themselves.

In many countries where multiple languages are spoken in one region, movie theaters will project subtitles in all languages. In the Baltics, for example, it’s common for a movie to be in English but have subtitles in both the local language and Russian, one on top of the other.

That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t already a community of people in America that enjoys subtitled content in other languages. Anime fans have long been supporters of subtitles, and the rise in popularity of Korean, Turkish and Spanish entertainment is bringing more fans to the world of subtitles, whereas the custom of watching things in other languages might have once belonged only to indie foreign film critics.

But Westworld’s commitment to dedicating almost entire episodes to a language most of its fans won’t be able to understand is extremely daring. Television just doesn’t normally trust its audience enough to stick around when forced to watch an hour-long episode in Japanese or Lakota. Languages have mostly been used to add a touch of realism — or rather, “exoticism” — to a piece, perhaps with accents thrown in.

westworld lakota

But as a show, Westworld has never compromised its complexity or realism for the sake of the viewer, which is why it’s so fascinating to watch. Its plot isn’t watered down for our sake, nor are things like violence or nudity hidden from our view for the sake of our sensibilities. Why, then, should they keep us in our comfort zones when it comes to language?

Making “Akane No Mai” entirely in Japanese and “Kiksuya” in Lakota, with actors who are fluent in both languages at the center, and the recurring actors speaking in a language unknown to them with practiced fluidity made this season of Westworld memorable in a way that transcends the show itself.

It’s proof that audiences in America and other English-speaking countries are becoming more and more comfortable with languages other than English, and that they’re willing to get used to reading subtitles if it means becoming more immersed in the show’s reality — which, at the end of the day, is our global reality.

Fans of shows like Westworld span much more than only English-speaking countries, and those fans’ only way of understanding the content of the show is to enjoy it through subtitles. By making these episodes in different languages, Westworld is allowing all audiences to finally enjoy different episodes from the same perspective… and allowing Japanese-speaking and Lakota-speaking fans to feel a little bit more connected to its world.

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