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The massive international success of Netflix’s Squid Game has significantly raised the profile of subtitling, a traditionally overlooked craft that is becoming increasingly essential to the efficient functioning of the global entertainment industry.
As the multinational streaming platforms invest huge sums in local-language series and movies — Netflix is spending more than a half-billion dollars on Korean content alone this year, while Disney+ and HBO Max are radically increasing their own international output — ensuring that such fare can be fully understood and appreciated by audiences worldwide is taking on growing significance.
The streamers undoubtedly have helped drive the popularity of content across borders and languages, especially the relatively new phenomenon of foreign-language hits in English-language markets. But insiders in the subtitling industry say those same platforms, and Netflix in particular, have pushed down fees for their work, leading to a corresponding drop in quality. This underinvestment in quality subtitles risks mistranslations that can cause cultural offense to bilingual viewers — or, at a minimum, can simply undercut the effectiveness and bankability of an otherwise expertly produced show.
Asked about its quality control, a Netflix spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, “Generally, we think our subtitles and dubbing are good but not yet great. So we’re constantly working to improve them.”
There is a widespread lack of appreciation in the industry for just how challenging the work of a subtitler can be, insiders say. Workers in the field are generally required to limit the length of their subtitles to approximately half the number of letters or characters that are available for an audio dubbing script, but they also are expected to retain the full meaning of dialogue while making it so easily readable that it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the onscreen action. The task is difficult enough when the meaning is straightforward — but when translating across cultures, it seldom is.
As complex expressions of language, scripts often contain words that don’t translate well, jokes that don’t travel, cultural references that are meaningless to outsiders, and even concepts that have no equivalent in other countries.
In East Asian languages, for example, there are terms used specifically for older and younger siblings, and aunts and uncles, which also have culturally specific meanings when applied to people outside the family. These have no direct equivalent in English or many other languages, creating headaches for those translating across them.
Such issues arose in Squid Game, where the Korean word “oppa,” used by women to address an elder brother or man a few years their senior, became “old man” and “babe” in different scenes, while “ajumma,” which refers to a middle-aged married woman, was translated as “grandma.” Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the show’s success, Netflix took a fair measure of heat on social media from bilingual viewers worldwide over the clumsy treatment of Korean cultural nuances.
Netflix’s megahit has suffered through comparison to another Korean success story, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar winner Parasite, which industry insiders point to as a case study in how to do subtitling right. Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based film critic, lecturer and occasional actor, was brought in for the subtitles and given lengthy notes from the director before he began.
“I had very detailed discussions with director Bong while working on the translation of Parasite,” explains Paquet. “He understands well the importance of subtitle translation, and he gave me a lot of guidance about what aspects of the original dialogue to emphasize.”
But such attention to detail and collaborations with directors are rare luxuries, particularly in the high-volume realm of the streaming platforms.
“Streamers seem to pay better attention to series that are more successful, but given the enormous quantities they are delivering, they can’t seem to maintain the same quality for every production,” says an experienced Korean-to-English subtitler (who asked not to be named because of ongoing work with the platforms). “For example, you can tell that the quality of subtitles in season two of Netflix’s [hit Korean zombie series] Kingdom has improved drastically compared to season one. That’s probably due to the show’s success.”
The translator reported payment of $255 for a 110-minute film for a local streaming service, and that such low pay, often accompanied by short deadlines, can result in a shoddy final product.
In neighboring Japan, the kind of attention lavished on the Parasite subtitles is unthinkable, according to Jason Gray, a producer at Tokyo’s Loaded Films and an occasional subtitler.
“Rather than a mode of writing with its own intrinsic artistry, subtitling is generally regarded as a necessary work task for getting Japanese ‘content’ out to buyers,” says Gray.
The pay and conditions for subtitling in Japan have worsened since Netflix launched locally in 2015, according to a multidecade veteran who also teaches the craft at a specialist college in Tokyo (and who also preferred to remain anonymous because of business relationships). “Fees have fallen by about 25 percent for very experienced subtitlers but nearly halved for entry-level work,” says the industry veteran.
The average fee in Japan for a one-hour episode is about $300, though the most experienced subtitlers working on a major production can command double that.
“Time is also a factor. A week is the typical lead time to get a one-hour show done,” says the Tokyo-based subtitler. “But time for checking and proofing is also usually limited, especially for smaller productions.”
Tight schedules and a lack of oversight can result in some baffling translations. In an episode of Netflix’s Derry Girls, a comedy set in Northern Ireland, the family dog is presumed dead, leading one character to declare: “I couldn’t manage my Chinese last night.” While the character is talking about being too upset to eat her takeaway, Japanese audiences are told: “I couldn’t pronounce the Chinese language last night.”
In Japan, a large volume of subtitling work is managed by agencies that act as middlemen, contracting with streamers and farming out the work to freelancers. The arrangement has resulted in even lower pay for actual workers.
“Why does Netflix, a multibillion-dollar corporation, outsource this instead of having a dedicated team in-house to guarantee the quality?” asks a translator who produces English subtitles for content from Netflix, Hulu and Japanese streamers via an agency.
In 2018, Netflix shut down its global Hermes platform, which was launched the previous year with the ambitious aim of not only dealing directly with subtitlers and translators but also training a new generation of them to handle its expanding library.
The situation is somewhat better in Europe, where film subtitling is still seen as an art. In France, local law requires that subtitlers be acknowledged in the credits, and translators often are eligible for residuals as part-creators of a work that travels and generates revenue outside its home language. But the rise of the global streamers has warped the subtitling business there as well.
“Because of the streamers, there is a lot more work, but the prices are going down and the quality is going down,” says Isabelle Miller, president of ATAA, the association that represents translators for dubbing and subtitling in France.
For language pairings where bilingual translators are in short supply, as for Korean to French, standard practice is for the translator to work from a version of the script that already has been translated once. So the French translation of Squid Game was done from an English version of the script.
“Any mistakes in that version were, of course, transferred over to the French,” notes Miller.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which won Netflix its first Oscar, was ruined when subtitled in French, according to an article published by ATAA. The group claimed the film was transformed “into a tragi-comic farce,” with strings of sentences lacking verbs or articles and characters randomly switching between contemporary slang and 19th century French.
The ATAA is lobbying France’s state film body, the CNC, to get collective bargaining rights for translators that would allow them to set minimum standards for all subtitlers.
Miller argues it would not cost much for Netflix and other major production companies to invest in high-quality translations — “less than 10,000 euros ($11,585)” for the dubbing script and subtitles to be professionally translated.
“That’s a very modest price,” she says. “If it’s not worth paying a little bit more to do the translation properly, was it worth making the film at all?”
Soomee Park and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.
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