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.

Fighting for our Rates

A Subtitler Speaks from Experience

(To read the French version, click here)

Maï, in the ATAA forum, you recently told us about a job one of your clients offered to you. Can you tell us more about it?

A large postproduction studio in Paris contacted me in December 2022 about subtitling all the episodes of a very prestigious, very successful mini-series with a very comfortable turnaround time (4 months to do 7 45-minute episodes). They told me the rate would be 16 € per minute (for both adaptation and timespotting).

They also told me there would be a lot of extra work I’d have to do, like filling in tables, preparing a list of on-screen texts and a localisation list which is a list of recurring and/or important words specific to the series the client wants so they can check everything and ensure a uniform translation for both the dubbing scripts and the subtitles. Preparing these documents requires a lot of additional time and coordination with the dubbing and subtitling teams. For this extra work they ask us to do, which has increased significantly over the past few years, we don’t receive any compensation. But author groups are currently in discussions to get this work included in the list of paid tasks. The project manager seemed apologetic about the amount of extra work to be done and said that she could possibly pay me for the simulation [the step where the subtitles are proofread and checked with the programme] as a way to compensate me for the extra work.

At first, I was excited to work on this project and with the dubbing team. I knew one of the authors, and I liked the subject of the series. So, my desire to be part of the project led me initially to accept the job in principle. But after thinking about if for a few days, I did the math. When a programme has a lot of dialogue, which is often the case with a series, there’ll usually be about 18 subtitles per minute on average. At the rate they were offering, that worked out to 88 cents per subtitle. I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to work regularly on projects that pay between 3.50 € and 4.30 € per subtitle. So I called the project manager back and refused the job because the rate was inappropriate. I explained to her that, being a staunch defender of proper rates for the profession, I could not, in good conscious, agree to such a low rate.

It was the first time that I was getting contacted to subtitle a programme that would run on Amazon. Along with that, I was also offered a dubbing project at a relatively acceptable rate of 28.60 € per minute, and I accepted that one.

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.”