Deluge of series, but ‘good subtitlers are gone’

The big Netflix competitor HBO Max started in March in the Netherlands, but that was not without problems. In many films and series, the Dutch subtitles were missing or incorrect. It rained grumbling on social media.

The start-up problems had to be resolved quickly, the company said. But even now, those translations are far from all right.

Also at Netflix there were in the recent past complaintsaccording to the subtitlers themselves because of low wages and high time pressure.

‘Need for fast translations’

It is indicative of a time when streaming services are booming, says the Dutch Authors’ Association, which hopes to come up with a quality mark for subtitlers soon. With the arrival of new names the ‘need for fast translations’ is increasing, says Peter Bosma, subtitler and board member. And the hands? “I have the impression that there are shortages.”

That impression is also present at subtitle company Iyuno-SDI. The flood of series, films and documentaries has made subtitlers ‘the lifeblood of streaming services’, says the company that provides services to most major media companies in the Netherlands and employs 2,800 people worldwide.

“Demand is higher than ever,” said Chris Carey, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We’re doing our very best to keep up.”

Concerns about quality

It puts pressure on quality. “I’ve seen screenshots of things that really can’t be done,” says Bosma. According to the subtitler, more and more companies are working with machine translation and series are translated via templates with text and time codes that are not allowed to deviate. This means that subtitles are often made ‘far too literal and too long’, he says.

Examples: ‘He was cut with a knife’, ‘bloated to death’, swear words that are actually impossible; you come across it all. “Even Google Translate would do better,” some viewers believe.

Sidejob

That also depends on the person, or persons, who are doing the translation. Companies more often make use of young, not specifically trained employees. Recently, many new people have joined for whom translation is not their main activity, says Bosma. To reduce staff shortages, but also to cut costs. “Sometimes it’s more of a side job.”

According to Bosma, that is not the case at all for many professional translators. Translator is not a protected profession, but many courses are at HBO level. Good translators often have years of experience and have completed language and culture studies.

‘Busier than ever’

Also freelance subtitler Erna Auf der Haar. According to her, more people have been added who ‘do it on the side’. And you can, because you don’t necessarily need more expensive proprietary software to be able to subtitle. You log in to a company and you can go. She herself is busier than ever: “It’s crazy.”

Would you like to have a series translated today? Then you’re out of luck: “It takes me at least a day to finish an episode of Friends,” she says. Auf der Haar mainly works for intermediaries, such as Iyuno-SDI and Plint, who provide translation services for the big names. She can live on it, she says. “But it’s really not a fat pot.”

Huge sin

According to the freelancer, it is also because good subtitling takes a lot of time. It is not the amount of orders. “Sometimes the same job comes in through multiple channels,” she says.

A good translation is compact, well-timed, with an eye for detail. But not too much: as a viewer you should also be able to look, says the expert. Good work therefore takes time, but that is not always the case in today’s market: “I’ve seen examples where you think: was this translated by a child?” Auf der Haar is concerned about it. “It’s a huge shame.”

Hammering on quality

Streaming and translation services themselves promise to emphasize quality. According to Carey, his company is growing fast and finding new talent is one of the biggest challenges. “We have strict standards, quality controls and training to ensure quality,” he says without going into detail.

Netflix also promises to pay attention. The company says through a spokesperson that there is a permanent team on subtitling that is working on improvement. Customer feedback on this is also appreciated, the spokesperson said. Subtitle work is a matter of ‘detail and nuance’.

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