The Rules of Speaking Russian on The Americans

Why are we speaking in English? Photo: FX

For a high-tension thriller about sex, spies, and audiotape airing on FX, The Americans spends a substantial portion of time translating complicated themes to viewers in Russian. As the saga of undercover agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings slow-burns its way through its third season, how do the show’s writers decide when to use Russia’s mother tongue over English? And what is it like working so often in another language? We asked creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner Joel Fields to reveal their rules of engagement.

First off, there was never meant to be so much Russian in the show.
Joel Fields: Back in season one, we thought there would probably be very little Russian in the show … When the show started, in the pilot, there wasn’t even a Rezidentura. A lot of the Russian obviously takes place there. When we wrote the second episode, we put the Rez in, and that just exploded the amount of Russian that was going to be in the show. Even then, we thought, We’ve gotta keep this under control, because who knows how much Russian an American audience will tolerate. But as we started to write, we just found that it worked better if we didn’t worry about that. We had these fascinating characters, and there was something great about writing those scenes. We just went with our hearts and let that dictate where the show went. Before we knew it, there were not just a lot of scenes, but much longer scenes than we anticipated.

Joe Weisberg: I remember in those first episodes, we sat with the writing staff and pruned down the scenes in Russian because we were so nervous that they’d be too long. Now we just write whatever it seems the characters would be saying and let the scene play.

The golden rule of language on the show: realism.
JF: The rule is that whatever language they’d be speaking in reality is what they speak.

JW: That’s right. If they’re two Russian speakers, they speak Russian. If there’s a Russian speaker with someone who doesn’t speak Russian, they have to speak English.

JF: For example, in the Soviet Union, there have been several seasons in English this year because [political prisoner] Evi is from Belgium and barely speaks Russian. They put her in [disgraced KGB agent] Nina’s cell knowing that Nina speaks English. Or — you probably haven’t seen this part of the show yet — we have a story line coming up where a couple of Russian speakers will be among other Russian speakers but want privacy. They both happen to know English, so they speak English then.

JW: We try to keep it as real as we can. We feel that’s what the audience is going to respond to, even if they lose a little bit of understanding.

No exceptions?
JW: We’ve never broken the rule. I don’t think there’s a single time that we’ve ever broken the rule.

JW: There was one time that might be an exception, now that I think about it, which is when [former Rezidentura head] Arkady and [undercover agent] Claudia met in a car. Now, since Margo Martindale, who plays Claudia, doesn’t actually speak Russian, we had to do that scene in English.

JW: In the rules we set up in the pilot, illegals [the show’s deep-cover spies, like Claudia] aren’t supposed to speak Russian in the United States. So we have the excuse that they spoke English for that reason.

They’re never tempted to break the rules, not even when it’s a big, emotional scene involving the main characters.
JW: We’re the opposite of tempted to do that. This season, we had a tape Elizabeth’s mother recorded for her in Russian playing without even putting the subtitles on. We were watching Twitter when that scene played, and there were some people who were like, “What the fuck is she saying?” Then other people tweeted the translation. That was an interesting TV experience.

JF: So much of it played so beautifully in the reactions on Keri Russell’s face that you got the emotional gist of what had been said in that scene. When you’re editing a scene in a language you don’t understand, some of it is guesswork. Yet on the other hand, you really, really get your finger on the pulse of what’s being expressed in a physicalized, emotional way. That’s very powerful.

Editing scenes in Russian is a totally different process.
JF: It brings up an interesting artistic process for us: What’s it like to direct actors in a language you don’t understand? We sit in the editing room, and when we’re editing a scene in English, we can play with a lot of dialogue and performance nuances. When you’re editing a scene in a language you don’t understand, on the one hand, some of it is guesswork. Yet on the other hand, you really, really get your finger on the pulse of what’s being expressed in a physicalized, emotional way. That’s very powerful.

The subtitles were a big point of debate.
JW: In the first season, we were looking at the subtitles, and we really spent a lot of time thinking about how big they should be. We’re asking a TV audience, in America, to watch a lot more subtitles than they ever had. And we thought, You know what? They’re too small. If we’re going to ask people to do that much reading, we should make them bigger.

JF: This was Joe’s particular obsession. He said to me at one point, “We should have subtitles that are as big as possible while still being just shy of ridiculous.”

JW: That’s really what I felt. I was squinting, and I actually annoyed myself at how small the subtitles were. So we just made them bigger and bigger and bigger, and at one point, everybody, everybody, went, “Stop! That’s ridiculous!” And we went like, 3 percent under that, and that’s what you see on the show.

If you have to play close attention to follow the characters sometimes? Good.
JF: Although we enjoy watching the Twitter feed, sometimes someone will say, “Damn, I was just tweeting and I missed something! Can anyone tweet me what happened?” It’s not a show that’s meant to be watched while you’re doing the dishes or balancing your checkbook. It does require some focus.

JW: They’re the anti-Twitter scenes.

The Rules of Speaking Russian on The Americans