Lost in Translation: Quick Thoughts on The Bridge and BBC4’s Euro-Cops

Picture: BBC4/ZDF

Mild spoilers for episodes one and two of The Bridge.

I rarely feel ‘You’re middle class now kid’ more keenly – except perhaps when i’m ordering my organic veg box – than when I sit down to watch my BBC4 Scandinavian drama serial. As a friend noted on twitter, Danish drama is the new The Wire for the tweeting media peeps, in terms of obsession and “oh you must watch it, its so much better than anything else” Quality TV snobbery. The Guardian is awash with it, and even Clive James in The Telegraph is arguing Danish Drama > US Drama > British Drama, upending the eternally infuriating ‘Why can’t Britain make The Wire’ critique (Predictably, James’s article was named ‘Why British Drama Has Lost The Plot’ in the print edition). Now we have The Bridge to fawn over, but on the evidence of the first two episodes i’m a bit hmmmn, however the experience of watching it prompted me to think about the issues involved in importing a dual-language European drama.

With a long history in European imports – my dad was always partial to French drama Spiral, ahead of the curve! – BBC4 returns to its Scando sweet spot with The Bridge (now that the Italian Inspector Montalbano has shuffled off, his collar turned up grumpily). A co-production between public service broadcasters Denmark’s DR – home of the beloved BBC4 hits The Killing and Borgen – and Sweden’s SVT, it follows police from the two countries teaming up to investigate a grisly murder and a seemingly social-motivated serial killer after a body is dumped on the bridge that links the two countries. The co-production’s dual language status is highlighted from

Screengrab BBC4 iplayer

the off, with dual language credits that play off the bridge motif. This appealed to the TV nerd in me, which was further intrigued when the credits revealed it was also co-funded by Norwegian and German public service broadcasters. Trans-Euro ‘Quality TV’/strong lady crime procedural! However as a devoted fan of Danish crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen) and political drama Borgen, and not a watcher of the Swedish crime drama Wallander (also on BBC4) I found myself slightly at sea.

As my GCSE French showed, I don’t have a natural ear for languages. Whilst like Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, my The Killing (and Borgen) fandom made me fancy I could speak Danish, when really the best I manage is ‘Tak’ (thank you). My language lack was shown as the first episode of The Bridge unfolded; I was heartily confused – was I in Denmark or Sweden, which copper was which? What language were they speaking to each other if they were from different countries? (Like most Brits my ignorance of European language and relationships is astonishing). Once i’d worked out blonde and leggy: Sweden, rumpled vasectomy: Denmark, I felt vaguely on my feet, but as soon as we cut away from the police I had no idea which country I was in. An occasional name gave me a clue – “hang on do umlats tend to be Swedish?” – and as the episode progressed Sweden seemed to be all of grim council blocks, 70s era styling (handlebar moustaches, grotty fur collared coats, knee high boots and beige polo-necks) and bleached flat light. Denmark, house-porn to-die-for interiors, grumpy teenagers and the imposing stone arches of the police station.

This was all exacerbated by having a single set of subtitles whether characters were speaking Danish or Swedish – presumably when the series was shown in its respective countries the other language was subtitled (forgive my production ignorance, my spoiler-phobe nature has limited my research). Some different shading in the subtitle might have helped us poor Brits. But asides from feeling stupid, I felt like I was missing out on jokes in the Swedish station at the Dane’s expense and, I suspected, the dramatic meaning of moments when characters switched languages. The plot is based around the links (and perhaps differences) between the two countries – quite literally in the corpse – and the killer spreads his word on a website that is mirrored in both languages. But without differentiation and my with my language-averse brain, all the nuances of cross-border tension blended into one indistinguishable Scando-blur. It’s going to take me a while – and the help of the sterling group of Europeans in the comment section of The Guardian episode blog – to make sense of this.

And I don’t know if its my natural leaning towards the Danish side, but it feels like we’re naturally meant to favour our rumbled Danish detective in the face of the abrupt Swedish blonde. Obviously made in the mold of The Killing‘s Sophie Lund, The Bridge‘s Saga Norén is as single-minded as her predecessor. I’m all for a prickly lady who trucks no nonsense, but it all feels a bit too much: the leggy blonde, with her leather trousers, classic car and her changing of t-shirts in the middle of the office, her casual attitude towards sex and her oh so clearly telegraphed lack of social skills and love of rules which all but scream ‘Autism spectrum’. It all feels a bit ‘really?!’

Picture: Channel 4

Maybe its because i’m currently in a deep lady crush with another blonde, abrupt, casual with her sexuality, but infinitely complex lady investigator in Homeland‘s Carrie (and the welcome return of Claire Danes’ Crying Face). Maybe its because I miss the smiling steel of Borgen‘s Birgitte Nyborg a bit too much. I’m still not sold on Saga, or The Bridge. Maybe this is a Scando-drama too far. After all, not all British drama is created equal, so neither are all Scandinavian imports. But we’ll see.


  1. I was once told, although I’ve long since forgotten who by, that although the written languages are fairly different Swedes, Norwegians and Danes speak so similarly that they can understand each other rather well. It would be like hearing someone speaking English with a broad regional dialect that at times might be hard to understand. (And my knowledge of certain Swedish pop groups allows me to add that their Swedish language recordings sold well in Norway and Denmark, although not much further outside Scandinavia, so this might back that up.)

  2. I think Ian’s example of the Swedish music sales is spot on. Furthermore, we see separate countries on a modern map, and assume one, unified language for each country. In fact, there is a huge variation in pronunciation _within_ Sweden. So I suspect, but do not know, that the Swedish spoken in Malmö is a dialect easily intelligible to Danes.

    I could imagine a gag on the show Dallas, where the characters were watching an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs and complaining that they could not understand it.

    I remember the first time I watched François Truffaut’s Day for Night, in French with subtitles. There is a scene where Jacqueline Bisset translates French for someone who does not understand it. Then I saw the movie dubbed into English. Obviously, the same scene now showed her repeating English into English, and the scene made no sense.

    Do you have any information that The Bridge is being broadcast with or without subtitles in those two countries? I’d be curious to know, but my simple search on Google didn’t yield an answer to that one.

    • Thanks for the suggestion Joseph – there is the scene in the Swedish police station where the Danish detective had to speak slowly and check the others understood him, but then he did the interview and there didn’t seem to be a language issue. Most confusing! Its interesting how regional differences get lost in translation even in English, as i’ve had discussions with Americans about Misfits where character elements and comedy was confusing to them because they didn’t have the ear for the regional accent.

      Vicky Frost mentioned subtitles in the Guardian Media podcast – which made me assume there was – but I don’t know if that actually is what happened on their original broadcast.

  3. Danish and Swedish is the same language, very different in pronuncuation, but shared grammer and around ~85% shared vocabulary, It should confuse you no more than a Londoner and a highland Scotsman speaking together – I work at a bilingual office, and it takes around a week, maybe two for the stubborn ones, before newcomers can have a perfectly fluent conversation with coworkers from the opposite side of the bridge. No formal training required, just takes some time getting used to.

    • Thanks Stefan – that clears my linguistic ignorance up! Though the confusion over which scenes/storylines are set in which country – which I believe is central to the plot, with the focus on the connection of the two nations with the killer making a political statement with the bridge corpse – still remains until I get into the swing of it. I shall have to attempt to train my brain into recognising dialect differences!

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