A paradigm shift

Interview published in the SNAC* Authors' Newsletter no. 152, January 2023.

Deluxe US Collective

*National union of authors and composers

Authors' Newsletter: What are your thoughts about subtitling using an online interface?

Collective: It is a way of working that completely transforms our working conditions and also, doubtless, the work itself and - in the long term - our status. Deluxe Media Inc. ("Deluxe US"), like Eikon, Iyuno and TransPerfect which operate in similar fashion, offers a subtitling service for programmes all over the world, particularly for VOD platforms such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video and, to a lesser extent, for theatrical releases. To do this, they oblige authors to work on a streaming interface; the Deluxe US one is called "Sfera". Authors can only communicate by email with their designated "Project Coordinator". The "PC"s don't know the work we do, and that is a constant source of errors and wasted time. The division of labour means that coordinators have no leeway, so they avoid all questions and use a form of Newspeak which would be worth examining in order to assess its influence on this groundbreaking project.

The countless errors with the project - errors about what the job entails; wrong versions (often not the latest) of the film being sent - give rise to a cascade of pointless emails and orders to undertake sometimes meaningless tasks. An example: having to submit three French titles for a film based on a book that already has a French title, when the film is to be released under the original title. We may sometimes receive over 100 emails for a film without much dialogue, whereas with a French company everything is settled with a dozen emails and a few phone calls.

The platform, Sfera, is inefficient and less precise than the early software from the 1980s. Not only does it crash regularly, sometimes losing our subtitles like in the '90s, back in the days of floppy disks, it also tries to impose a new working model that modifies all the steps of the subtitling process, slowly leading to the loss of our independence and autonomy.

A.N.: What are the main differences?

Collective: First there is spotting, a specialised task that involves splitting the dialogue up into empty subtitles. It is a crucial stage which absolutely cannot be done automatically: the subtitles must be placed a way that suits the pace of the dialogue and takes the editing into account so that they read smoothly. At Deluxe, spotting is carried out by a machine or a person who knows nothing about our work, and can only blindly obey ridiculous norms. What is more, a single version of the spotting is carried out for all the target languages. This is sacrilege because the subtitles will be placed differently depending on the translation language. Deluxe claims it does this so that subtitle authors can adapt the spotting to their language. This, however, is a dishonest argument: it is purely an issue of saving money because they only have to do the spotting once, and the authors end up having to redo almost all of it. That is, when they are allowed to, which they rarely are, especially outside France. Some authors bill an additional charge for reworking the spotting, but not all are in a position to do so because the balance of power is not in their favour. Thus authors receive a list of badly positioned empty subtitles, known as a template. In contrast, when we work with our own software, we can change the spotting as much as we like: alter the time codes, join two subtitles together or separate them, and so on. It may seem trivial but good spotting is a crucial stage in creating good subtitles.

With Deluxe, it is forbidden to make any alterations to the spotting at any point in the translation process, which is the second stage. Only once the final edit has been made, and the definitive version of the programme arrived at, is permission given to make changes. This means authors initially work in the dark, taking a gamble that their translation will fit with whatever spotting change they have in mind. Only at the last reread do they find out if they were right. Under normal circumstances, authors try various things, wonder if they will work - and they don't always - and generally behave like any human beings at work: they think.

A.N.: Why must the spotting not be altered until the end?

Collective: Because Sfera is so highly automated that it can't manage it, which betrays a lack of competence and know-how and clearly shows that the whole process is not designed to allow us to adjust the spotting. Yet another example of automation leading to inefficiency, especially since Deluxe may ask us to work for weeks on non-definitive versions, then leave us just two days at the end of the process to rework everything when the programme is finalised.

The third stage, a sort of proofread, is known in France as "simulation". When our work is finished, we generally go into a studio to view the film with the client and a technician from the subtitling service. It's a vital part of the process, when we show our work to fresh eyes - people who think, and react to what they see - and talk about the subtitles in order to improve the final quality. With this interface, on the contrary, the "simulation" stage cannot happen most of the time, because people don't talk to each other or even see each other. There is only a Quality Check (QC) carried out by someone-or-other. We have no contact, not even by email, with the person or machine that throws back corrections that we can only accept or refuse at the click of a button. "Yes" or "no"; no nuance, no discussion. Sometimes, this remote proofread is even done by Deluxe on a version which is not yet finalised, which is just a huge waste of time for everyone. Some clients or directors do insist on having a "simulation", even though they have entrusted the subtitling to Deluxe: let us remember that after all the company is only a technical provider whose job should be to best serve the quality of both the original and the translation.

The organisation of work is very hierarchical and rigid. The procedures and decision-making are unwieldy, which causes delays and a lack of flexibility that are damaging to quality. This is the case particularly - but not only - when last-minute alterations are made to the work by the director, just before it is released (as often happens), meaning that everything has to be done in a hurry. We have worked out that the interface and the various processes cost us about 40% of the time allotted for translation. Thus, while the translation stage is the most important and the QC much less so, Deluxe does the opposite by favouring QC. In contrast, with the clients and the traditional companies based here in France, we are on the same wavelength and everyone's efforts are focused on high-quality work delivered on time, however tight the deadline. This seems impossible with Deluxe.

A.N.: What would be the consequences if this model became mainstream?

Collective: To give you an idea of what to expect if the Deluxe model were to prevail, I suggest you read this analysis of the French subtitles for the film Roma, on the Ataa blog. The disastrous quality of many subtitles on Netflix and Amazon Prime can mainly be explained by these working conditions. What is more, for most translators - chosen by the platforms from amateur websites such as ProZ - the pay is disgraceful, well below the legal minimum hourly rate.

But the most serious problems are fundamental ones posed by this new way of working. Having to log on online to work means translators can potentially be monitored remotely; it also limits our choice of where to work, since it requires an excellent Internet connection. Deluxe can see everything about our working patterns: when we log on, what days and times we work or not; how far we have progressed (measured automatically as a percentage) and how many subtitles we write in a day. That may seem innocent enough but could potentially cause things to slide and constrain our freedom as self-employed workers.

Moreover, the software interface captures the subtitles as they are written. This means we can't back up our different versions and compare them, which can be useful and sometimes allow for “regrets”. Nor can we export our subtitles ourselves in order to reread them, or even print them in the interface. We have to ask the project coordinators and they have to agree. More time wasted, and it makes even less sense when similar software for other companies places no restrictions on exports and printing.

It is also difficult to find out who has written the dubbing script in order to contact them and align our work with theirs to improve end quality. The only "communication" is via another online document where subtitle translators may find the choice of certain terms and expressions made for them; this often happens at the very last moment, undoing hours of thought, rather than talking things over beforehand with the dubbing translator(s). Deluxe often justifies these various constraints as being security measures, but is that not also an excuse for an abuse of power, taking control of the work of authorship? What is dangerous about translators talking things over in order to ensure better quality?

A.N.: What are the aims of the new model?

Collective: You do have to wonder why the new system confiscates our texts and what interest these platforms have in forcing this way of working upon us. Is it in order to accustom us to the idea of being divested and take us towards a paradigm shift and the beginning of the end of intellectual property rights? It also gives rise to a subsidiary question that is worth asking: is the work taken from us by Deluxe used to "fatten" machine translation tools?

At one time, Sfera proposed a column labelled "automated translation" with a ready-made translation that we could modify. That option was swiftly ruled out for France, where many translators quite simply refused it. But it is worth noting that in that case we are no longer translating but post-editing; long-term, there would indeed be no more reason to allow us to access what we have done since we would no longer be authors but simply underpaid technicians. This would mean a total loss of control. The author would be the machine, with interchangeable proofreaders.

Note: Deluxe Media Inc., the American company this concerns, must in no case be confused with Deluxe Paris Media, a subtitling service and dubbing studio based in Paris.

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