Amid soaring appetite for non-English-language shows and a growing global streaming market, it ought to be a golden time for subtitle translators.
The popularity of shows such as the Korean megahit Squid Game, which attracted 111 million viewers in its first 28 days to become Netflix’s most watched series ever, the Spanish series Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) and the French drama Lupin have proved that subtitles are no block to pulling in huge global audiences. Last year Netflix reported that foreign language titles were up by more than 50% on 2019.
But despite their crucial and highly skilled role, acting as conduits between the action on screen and millions of viewers around the world, the translators who painstakingly write the streamers’ subtitles – some of whom may be paid as little as $1 (75p) per minute of programme time – do not appear to have seen the rewards filtering down to them
So bad is the status quo that after two years in the industry, freelance translator and copywriter Anne Wanders would discourage others from going into it at all.
“It’s so sad that if anyone would ask me: ‘Oh, I saw this job listing, should I try to become a subtitle translator?’ I would have to tell them: ‘No you shouldn’t. It’s not worth your time,’” said the 40-year-old from Dortmund, Germany.
Wanders, who translates English into German for streaming vendors, including one of the world’s largest subtitling companies, enjoys the job, which she finds both creative and challenging. But the pay, which she says can work out at below minimum wage, makes it unsustainable as a single source of income. “It’s great to have a job like that, but not if you need to side-fund it with your savings. Then it’s not a job. Then you’re being taken advantage of.”
Professor Jorge Díaz-Cintas of the Centre for Translation Studies at University College London said that streaming platforms, which used to be largely dominated by English-spoken productions, have become “truly global”, and this, combined with the pandemic, has led to an explosion of demand. “The industry is experiencing a talent crunch because there aren’t enough experts in the subject and enough people qualified to be working in this field,” he said.
Translators are paid per minute of programme time – even though a single minute of screen time can take hours to accurately and succinctly translate and subtitle – and usually work for outsourced companies known as language service providers (LSPs).
“There is no lower limit [in pay]. It goes all the way to almost zero,” said Max Deryagin, chair of the British Subtitlers’ Association and a representative of Audiovisual Translators Europe. In theory, he added: “It should be a golden moment. We have insane volumes of work.” Instead, what he sees is widespread stress and burnout as subtitle translators try to make ends meet.
This, he says, is leading the most experienced translators to leave the field for better-paid translation jobs or to switch professions entirely: “When the most experienced veteran subtitlers quit, they are quickly replaced with who? Amateurs, part-timers, students, people like that. Then, of course, that affects the quality – it becomes worse.”
Many subtitle translators are bound by rules that prevent them from revealing what work they have done and for whom. Speaking out on Twitter, Los Angeles-based Japanese-to-English audiovisual translator Katrina Leonoudakis wrote: “Like every other industry that requires skilled labour, the problem isn’t that there’s a ‘shortage’. The problem is that companies don’t want to pay for the highly experienced translators that are available. ‘Shortage’ is always capitalist speak for ‘we don’t want to pay’.”
Citing Pablo Romero-Fresco, honorary professor of translation and film-making at Roehampton University, who writes that more than 50% of revenue obtained by most films comes from translated and accessible versions, yet only 0.01-0.1% of budget is spent on them, Leonoudakis said: “Translation is a huge profit enabler for studios and streaming services.
“Knowing that these multibillion-dollar companies refuse to pay a few more dollars to an experienced professional, and instead opt for the lowest bidder with mediocre quality, only speaks to their greed and disrespect not only for the craft of translation, but the art created by the film-makers they employ.” While in many ways an invisible art form, subtitles have the power to spark intense debate when they go wrong, as demonstrated by the criticism of Squid Game.
Silhee Jin, president of the Korea Association of Translators and Interpreters and a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, puts subtitle inconsistencies down to “chronic underpayment”, adding that it “discourages the right people from making a start in the market, and in some cases resorting to cheap machine translation solutions with minimal human involvement”.
Outsourcing, she said, “leaves little left in the hands of the actual translators” and she believes there is a lack of motivation to train professionals.Another pressure for translators in today’s market is time. Mara Campbell, chief operating officer and founder of True Subtitles, which works for many of the vendors of the big streamers, including Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime , recalls that when she started translating subtitles in 1999 they would have a week to translate a film. Now they have two days.
“I really don’t know if I was better off then than I am now, but it was always underpaid, that’s for sure. The turnaround times have been the worst thing,” she said. Today, she adds, professionals in the industry are still driven by passion, but pay is driving people out.Tiina Kinnunen, a translator who has beenin the industry for 30 years and subtitled Seinfeld and The West Wing into Finnish, says the LSPs have been putting money in the wrong direction “looking to automate lots of things”.
She believes that technology has a role to play in the future of subtitle translation but that it needs to be handled carefully. “Whether it’s something that actually helps people do the job faster or whether it’s just technology for technology’s sake.”