Where have all the Translators gone?

That’s the heading of an article by the Guardian (Sunday 14 November). More precisely, it should say: “Where have all the Subtitlers gone?”

That’s the heading of an article by the Guardian (Sunday 14 November)*. More precisely, it should say: “Where have all the Subtitlers gone?”, since in fact, the author is referring to that particular sub-group of the Translator guild. These, she says, are leaving the industry “in droves”. How come?

The answer is, quite simply, poor pay, lamentably poor pay. One subtitler from English to German is quoted reporting rates as low as 1 US dollar per minute of programme time. When in fact it can take “hours to accurately and succinctly translate and subtitle”.

Audiences are keen to see films and shows in languages they cannot understand, and they are not expecting dubbed versions but are increasingly happy to rely on subtitles. Some of the most popular shows are the Korean Squid Game, and the French drama Lupin, and apparently Netflix reports that foreign films increased by more than 50% between 2019 and 2020. To a large degree this is a consequence of the pandemic. We know that some companies are making tons of money.

What is glaringly obvious is that they are not sharing this with their subtitlers. The professional referred to above is quoted saying that if an aspiring linguist were to ask her whether becoming a subtitler was a good idea, she would try to discourage them: “It’s not worth your time.” She says that while the work is great (in the sense of challenging and interesting), it cannot really be called a job, because you cannot make a living from it. Another case of capitalist exploitation, and people doing a job because they love it, or because they are desperate.

And yes, there is the allure of being a subtitler and being involved with the film industry. It has  something romantic and adventurous about it, and is perhaps seen as more interesting and creative than doing technical translations or churning out marketing blurb or corporate communications. I have noticed over recent month an increase in the number of candidates applying for translator positions at Alpha who mention that they wish to add new skills to their set of competences, “such as subtitling”. Most universities offer special courses for subtitling, and many CVs show that students have taken these up.

Subtitling is by no means an easy task. Quite apart from the time constraints and the low budgets, you have the extra challenge of needing to squeeze your translation onto 2 lines of text at most, often with no more than 42 characters each. And you are expected not to miss out anything, and to convey not just the meaning, but also the tone and register, and any cultural references! You do not “simply” translate, but you have to condense, and shorten, simplify the syntax and make sure each subtitle makes sense on its own as well as across several frames.

Subtitling is “odd” in the sense that you are not just replacing output in one language by another, you are also changing the “production medium”, i.e. you are crossing over from spoken production to a written target. That in itself carries a number of potential pitfalls. It is a kind of double-translation. Because these two forms are different. Spoken language is often characterized by dialect and sociolect, it may contain omissions, false starts, it may be terribly rude in a way that an audience might object to if it came up in a written subtitle. Which is why subtitling often requires omission, reduction or condensation.

Very often it demands thinking on your toes – coming up with quick-witted solutions in little time. Getting across dialect, humour, etc. and all that under the constraints of space and time.

My last blog was about the importance of giving due credit to literary translators by putting their name on the front page. This time, I want to speak up for subtitlers who do their work even more in the shadow, and get paid a pittance. And too often they are criticized by people who are ignorant of what goes on behind the scenes. Coming out of the Picturehouse cinema in Cambridge I have more than once heard people comment about the poor quality of the subtitles. Each time I felt like turning around to them saying “Do you know what conditions these people have to work under, how little time they have, and how little money they earn?” On the whole, I believe that people watching shows and films are not really appreciative of the valuable work subtitlers perform and there is a feeling of “I could have done this better”.

An Austrian newspaper reports that a subtitler can earn 26,50 US dollars per hour when translating from Japanese into Finnish for Netflix, but if you are translating from Greek into English the rate is 7,75 US dollar. See here: https://www.miss.at/netflix-bezahlt-dich-jetzt-fuer-das-uebersetzen-von-untertiteln/

You have to pass a 90-minute test (called HERMES) where they check your understanding of idiomatic expressions and you have to find errors in a text. Netflix claims:

Our desire to delight members in “their” language, while staying true to creative intent and mindful of cultural nuances is important to ensure quality. It’s also fuelling a need to rapidly add great talent who can help provide top-notch translations for our global members across all of these languages. You can do the test and also get an interesting insight into Netflix’s approach here: https://netflixtechblog.com/the-netflix-hermes-test-quality-subtitling-at-scale-dccea2682aef

Netflix set up Hermes in the spring of 2017. Incidentally, they report on that same page that globally there are as few as 100-150 subtitlers for Dutch, for example. So clearly, a shortage (and one that we are feeling at Alpha too, where finding Dutch translators is proving extremely difficult).

Turning back to the Guardian article, it is worrying that Max Deryagin, chair of the British Subtitlers’ Association and a representative of Audiovisual Translators Europe, confirms the sad state of affairs: “In theory, it should be a golden moment. We have insane volumes of work.” Instead, the reality is widespread stress and burnout as subtitle translators try to make ends meet, leaving part-timers and amateurs to try and do the job. Because the large corporations do not want to pay the fees for professionals. Instead they often opt for machine translation with very little human involvement. I always thought that when demand is high and supply is short, prices go up. Either I totally misunderstood that economic principle, or for some reason it does not apply to the translation industry.

Pablo Romero-Fresco from Roehampton University says that more than 50% of revenue in film-making is generated by translated versions, yet only 0,01-0,1% of the budget is spent on that part of the production. It would appear that timing and budget override all consideration of quality.

Even if the author of the article is uncovering a scandal about a specific category of translators – namely subtitlers – how long will it be before we will have to ask „Where have all the Translators gone?“

*I am grateful to Hector Calabia, Spanish translator at Alpha, for sending me the link to the Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/nov/14/where-have-all-the-translators-gone

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