Disastrous subtitles on streaming platforms: who's to blame ?

Subtitling is certainly getting headlines as 2021 draws to a close. Following on from the Roma scandal, SquidGamegate is a fresh reminder of the vital nature of this form of translation and the often disastrous quality of subtitles on major platforms. Lost in translation: The global streaming boom is creating a severe translator shortage, according to the website restofworld.org. A survey by EGA – the trade association whose members are the world’s biggest localization companies – published by the prestigious website Businesswire shows that 61% of viewers encounter problems on a monthly basis with dubbed and subtitled programmes on streaming platforms. The Guardian for its part wants to know: Where have all the translators gone?

The EGA survey gives cause for concern. 65% of the 15,000 subscribers to the platforms surveyed stopped watching a programme at least once in the course of a year because of poor localization quality. And 30% are forced to stop watching every month. For an example of this quality problem, look no further than the Twitter thread created by the French union of authors and composers (SNAC) on the nonsensical French subtitles for TV series Y: The Last Man.

Reactions to these concerns vary considerably depending who one talks to. The localization industry says that poor subtitle quality is due to a shortage of translators, which forces companies to hire less qualified ones. According to the CEO of the infamous company Iyuno-SDI, which has been blacklisted by professional associations in several countries because of its rate-slashing practices, platforms will simply have to settle for below-par subtitles. So much for aiming high. Too much work and not enough translators, apparently – or, as Chris Fetner, EGA’s Managing Director and former Netflix executive creatively puts it, “the sponge can’t take any more water right now.”

But is there another way to consider the problem?

Shouldn’t the steep drop in quality be understood quite simply as a consequence of the shrinking rates and deadlines noted by professional associations worldwide? One translator interviewed by The Guardian answers this question clearly. Asked if she would encourage young people to go into subtitling, Anne Wanders says she would tell them, “No, it’s not worth your time” – not unless they want to literally eat up their savings. “There is no lower limit [in pay]. It goes all the way to almost zero,” says Max Deryagin, Chair of the British Subtitlers’ Association. Pablo Romero-Fresco, a professor at Roehampton University, explains that 50% of the revenue obtained by most films comes from translated versions, but only 0.01 to 0.1% of budget is spent on them.

Word is getting out about the rates offered by the localization industry and some quick calculations bear out these statements. First problem, audiovisual translation, a highly specialized branch of literary translation, is the only type of translation in the world for which translators are not paid on the basis of the quantity of text they translate (a 45-minute episode of a series can have 300, 500 or 800 subtitles). Netflix apparently pays $13 per minute for Korean-to-English subtitles, but according to articles quoted in this post, localization companies pocket part of that amount. The rate translators actually get paid is more like $5 a minute (so their employer makes a profit of more than 50%, which doesn’t seem to bother the platforms). Since it takes five days (according to professional associations) to translate a series episode properly, they earn the princely sum of $50 a day, i.e. $1,000 per month, which is not even enough to pay for rent in countries like the UK, Sweden, Germany and South Korea. But maybe it’s a good rate in countries with a lower cost of living? Not so, because localization companies tailor rates to markets. In Eastern Europe, as well as Spain and Portugal, the rate per minute is around $3, which comes out (even reducing the amount of time spent on an episode to four days) at… $34 per day.

If one takes an honest look at the situation, it should come as no surprise that subtitles are so bad – especially considering that templating plays havoc with the editing and meaning of the original, and forces all languages to conform to the pace of English. Moreover, most languages are first translated into English and then into the target language, which impoverishes content, wipes out cultural features and nuances, and generates a large number of mistakes (see this article in The Hollywood Reporter). A wholly absurd process at a time when viewers are avidly watching non-English speaking shows.

As Katrina Leonoudakis, a Japanese to English translator, explains to The Guardian: “Knowing that these multibillion-dollar companies refuse to pay a few more dollars to an experienced professional, and instead opt for the lowest bidder with mediocre quality, only speaks to their greed and disrespect not only for the craft of translation, but also the art created by the film-makers they employ.” And, one might add, their viewers.

Conversely, in France and elsewhere, there are conscientious employers – TV channels, publishers and distributors – who pay subtitle translators reasonable rates and, unsurprisingly, have no shortage or quality problems. It would indeed seem that some platforms are beginning to realize this. In France, for example, Netflix recently decided to force its largest supplier to pay the rates recommended by professionals for its high-end shows. Strangely, this doesn’t apply to series at the moment, but it’s a start.

Shortage ? Lack of training? Instead of pretending to ponder the reasons for quality problems, localization companies and their clients – the platforms – would do well to listen to Katrina Leonoudakis. “Like every other industry that requires skilled labour, the problem isn’t that there’s a ‘shortage’,” she says. “The problem is that companies don’t want to pay for the highly experienced translators that are available.”

To quote an adage translators are familiar with: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

See original French text here.
Translated by Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer

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