Netflix’s Translation Strategy Leaves A Lot To Be Desired - 2012

I had the opportunity to speak to Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt, the person in charge of translation and subtitling at Netflix. We had a friendly conversation, but it became clear that Netflix has little idea of the challenges of subtitling and their importance to non-English speakers.

According to Hunt, most subtitles on Netflix have been received through film distributors’ own networks and around 10 % are commissioned by Netflix. At least some of the Finnish subtitles have been provided by Broadcast Text International and SDI Media, the two largest subtitling companies in the country. Subtitlers at said companies have revealed that the schedule for Netflix subtitles is ridiculous: a single subtitler is asked to produce up to 90 minutes of finished material per day. That’s the amount a subtitler would normally produce in a week.

When asked about the schedule, Hunt referred to the short time between signing the contract and launching the service. Apparently in this scenario, subtitles are “a necessary evil” for which no time needs to be allocated in a project like launching a new video service – the subtitles will just appear from somewhere, ready to be used. Hunt added that there is no need to have just “two or three” subtitlers working on the project; he can get “a thousand”. It appears Hunt is unaware that according to even the most generous estimates, there are only around 400 professional subtitlers in Finland.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

It’s clear that on a schedule like this, the quality leaves a lot to wish for. Typical characteristics of rushed subtitles are jumpy timing, lack of compacting, bland vocabulary and foreign language structures. Average viewers may not even realize the subtitles are poor, at least if there are no apparent mistakes. They may think that the film is confusing and bland, when in reality the problem is useless subtitles.

Hunt admitted straight out that Netflix is not interested in quality. The mention of subtitles affecting the public’s literacy and language skills he dismissed as a joke, or at least it made him laugh out loud. He replied that viewers are able to report poor subtitles through Netflix’s system. In other words, at Netflix quality control has been outsourced to the viewers. Maybe the service’s real entertainment value is in fact spotting mistakes in the subtitles.

Hunt stated that in the future, Netflix is looking to use crowdsourcing as a means of producing subtitles. In other words, a couple of amateur subtitlers would type in their translation, a few more would edit it and so on. The thought alone is appalling – charging viewers for a service and offering them subtitles scribbled by unpaid amateurs. On the other hand, Netflix has already been caught using fan subtitles stolen from pirate subtitle provider DivX. We have no way of knowing how many of the titles on Netflix already have amateur subtitles. Subtitler credits are missing from most of the titles, which in itself is illegal according to Finnish law.

The distorted prices of the translation industry were well illustrated in Hunt’s statement that Netflix wants to pay 300 dollars per program hour for subtitles. That is what they want to pay the subtitling company, while the subtitler’s fee is a whole other matter. In comparison, a subtitler would earn 450-550 dollars after taxes for an hour’s worth of subtitles working for a company that follows the Finnish “Yhtyneet” collective agreement. The subtitling companies are to blame for this discrepancy. By trampling prizes and teaching clients that they can get subtitles as cheap as they want, they have made it impossible for professional subtitlers to earn a living on their wages.

All in all, Neil Hunt’s comments showed a total lack of understanding about creating subtitles and a complete disregard to their content. Apparently Netflix just wants any text to put on screen, so that they can claim that all their content is subtitled in Finnish. With their schedule and prices, that is exactly what they get.

translated and edited from a text in this site's blog Täällä on ihminen välissä October 20th 2012