Inside the dying art of subtitling

The wildly popular series Squid Game drew criticism for its English subtitles. Just how did those happen?

At 18 years old, Doga Uludag knew she wanted to become a subtitler.

Inspired by a translator uncle, the then second-year university student set out, in person, across the bustling streets of Turkey, determined to get herself a job at a small subtitling company. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and a heavy dose of youthful enthusiasm, she knocked on the company's front door.

She begged and begged to be taught the art of translating international movies and TV shows for local viewers. Subtitlers toil for months over the length, timing and nuance behind little words so they unobtrusively run across our screens and allow us to enjoy content from all over the world. Sometimes they study the reference material of adaptations. Sometimes they take special requests from filmmakers. Sometimes they construct their very own made-up terminology for fantasy worlds or superheroes.

Uludag was prepared to take it all on.

Only later did she discover what that really meant. "I'm kind of ashamed to say that the first place I went to was a really bad outsourcer," Uludag says.

The practice of outsourcing sees TV stations, movie studios and streaming giants hire external subtitling vendors instead of using in-house subtitlers. The result is that funds trickle down from managers until employees at the bottom -- the subtitlers -- are left with the dregs.

Back then, Uludag wasn't aware of the "exploitation" prevalent in the subtitling industry. Her extraordinary passion for the work sustained her through the harsh conditions and low pay she would face for the next 15 years.

"The rates have not been increased in around 20 years," says Max Deryagin, chair of the British Subtitlers' Association, Subtle, and a representative of AudioVisual Translators Europe. "As you can imagine, with inflation, that's not good."

There's more. Subtitlers contend with unrealistic expectations, tight deadlines and competition from clunky machine translation. Often, their work goes underappreciated, under the radar. Sometimes Uludag would be sent a file to translate at 11 p.m. -- "and they would say we need it by 8 a.m."

Without skilled subtitlers, movies such as historic Oscar winner Parasite are lost in translation. Yet the art of subtitling is on the decline, all but doomed in an entertainment industry tempted by cheaper emerging artificial intelligence technologies. Subtitlers have become a dying breed.

And this had been the predicament before the world started watching a little show called Squid Game.


Netflix came under fire for its English translation of the South Korean hit Squid Game.

Netflix/Youngkyu Park

A huge misunderstanding

In 28 days, Squid Game leapfrogged Bridgerton as Netflix's most popular series ever. It also inadvertently started a global conversation about bad subtitles.

While critics lauded the South Korean battle royale-themed drama for its polished production values, gripping story and memorable characters, many accused Netflix of skimping on the quality of Squid Game's English subtitles.

A prime example: Ali, the Pakistani laborer, shares a touching moment with Sang Woo, an embezzler who graduated from Korea's top university. Sang Woo suggests Ali call him hyung, instead of sajang-nim or "Mr. Company President." The term hyung literally translates as "older brother," a term used by a man to address an older man with whom he has formed a closer bond. That's Ali and Sang Woo.


The Haunting of Bly Manor came with a unique set of subtitle challenges.


Yet, the line "Call me hyung" was translated as "Call me Sang Woo." A rare moment of compassion and humanity, amid all the gloom and gore, was lost.

Then there was the lead female character, who came across more intelligent in Korean. Not to mention the other discrepancies in translations of honorifics, such as oppa (translated in the show as "baby") and yeonggam-nim (translated as "sir").

Yet Deryagin, who also works as a proofreader, says that Squid Game's English subtitles are in fact at a decent standard. Some had been watching the often-autogenerated "closed captions," subtitles intended for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, providing descriptions of sounds, such as gasps, and prompts as to who's speaking. And even if they were watching the "correct" subtitles, some phrases are destined to be lost in translation. Honorifics in particular are simply "untranslatable," argued Jinhyun Cho, senior lecturer in translation and interpreting at Macquarie University.

Yet Netflix, which abandoned its in-house subtitling program Hermes one year after its launch in 2017, is interested in a different area of translation: dubbing. It's not hard to see why. For example, 72% of Netflix's American viewers said they prefer dubs when watching Spanish hit Money Heist, Netflix's third most popular show ever.

Unfairly criticized, underfunded and facing a lack of support from the entertainment industry, subtitlers are on the brink. At least the Squid Game controversy illuminated an unsung fact: Good subtitles are an exceptionally difficult art.


Subtitlers actually played chess to translate The Queen's Gambit.


A day in the life of a subtitler

Ever since her first questionable job experience, Uludag hasn't looked back. She's worked on Sweet Tooth, Sex Education, Jupiter's Legacy, The Haunting of Bly Manor, The Queen's Gambit and The Crown, some of the biggest titles to hit Netflix.

Her subtitling process is fine-tuned, versatile and exhaustive. Take The Haunting of Bly Manor. The Mike Flanagan series is loosely based on Henry James' short stories The Turn of the Screw and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes. Uludag, a literature major at university, reread them. Then she read the Turkish translations. Then she watched The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation.

Only then, after a week of preliminary preparation, did she watch the series from beginning to end. She took notes incessantly, refined the show's specific language -- "The show is set in the '80s, but it sounds a bit older than that."

Overall, Uludag spent around six weeks going back and forth over her translations, making sure the language in a flashback episode, for example, read more archaic but "not too old for young viewers." It was a tricky balancing act.

The Crown took even longer. "They don't speak like normal people on the street," Uludag says.

For The Crown, Uludag had to translate a Charles Mackay poem, a Rudyard Kipling poem and Shakespeare -- texts that aren't in the public domain in Turkish. Uludag had to make her own translations, her own decisions on syllables, rhymes and alternative words. She tinkered with the poems constantly.

Other titles took different kinds of research. For Sex Education, Uludag made sure she contacted LGBTQIA+ associations for up-to-date inclusive terminology. For Jupiter's Legacy, Uludag crafted her own superhero terminology.

For The Queen's Gambit, Uludag, working as a supervisor, actually had to sit down, take out a chess set and play the game. The translation involved converting chess notation systems to Turkey's standard.

"I was playing every single chess game in the series … because if someone knows chess, they'll know when a move is not possible."

Uludag's extensive preparation isn't unusual among translators. "It took three months of work and at least two weeks before I could even write one subtitle," said Emmanuel Denizot, a subtitler who also had the strange experience of translating Shakespeare for the French version of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.

Basically, being a subtitler involves a lot of work. To become specialized, Uludag believes it takes at least five years of training.

But why would a young subtitler be attracted to the profession when the pay is so dismal?


Uludag worked on the Turkish translation of The Crown.


The light at the end of the tunnel

Outside Hollywood, one country, France, is known as the pinnacle, the capital of subtitling.

There, subtitlers receive royalties. They have minimum rates. "It's like five times our minimum rates," Uludag says.

Added Denizot, "The French system is better in terms of protection of intellectual property compared to the UK or elsewhere."

Paris, the stronghold of subtitling, the home of leading subtitling labs such as Titra Film or Hiventy, considers a subtitler to be an "author."

Uludag likens it to being a translator of a book. "You get credit for it." No one would ever consider using machine translation for that medium. "But why is film a lesser art?" she asks.

The exponential increase in streaming content has seen a trend in mixed machine and human translation. AI technology, such as Google Cloud AI or a new system from buzzy London startup Flawless, is vital for closed captioning. Yet when used to do a quick generation of subtitles, the pass still requires quality control from a human editor.

It means subtitlers receive even less compensation. "The translator makes less for something they enjoy less," Deryagin says. "It's just a lose-lose."

Across the past decade, reports of diminished pay and low rates have surfaced. "Some rates offered by international companies are below any minimum wage legally assured in most Western countries," Denizot said.

In Korea, a translator reported the equivalent of a $255 payment for a 110-minute film for a local streaming service. In Japan, average fees for a one-hour episode are reportedly $300, but have worsened since 2015, when Netflix launched in the country.


Squid Game was at the center of controversy surrounding its subtitles upon release.

Netflix/Youngkyu Park

Uludag is confused by the underappreciation for subtitlers, the conduits between the most popular shows and millions of viewers around the world. Given that Netflix invested half a billion dollars into Korean content last year, you'd think subtitling would be considered a crucial and lucrative part of post-production. "It's not an extra step," Uludag says. "It's not an afterthought."

Take sound editing as a comparison. "Would you say, 'Let's find the cheapest standard?' You would never say that."

In an ideal world, Netflix's in-house subtitling program Hermes would have worked. Subtitlers would have been able to work for Netflix directly, instead of going through external vendors. Deryagin explains that interest in Hermes was "astronomical," with more than "100,000" applicants. But the manpower required in even just the initial testing stages wasn't enough and the project sank.

"We have reached our capacity for each one of the language tests due to the rapid popularity and response from applicants all over the world. Therefore we are closing the platform to future testing at this time," Netflix wrote in a notification before taking down the Hermes translator testing portal. Netflix didn't respond to a request for comment.

In an ideal world, subtitlers would receive better rates, better working conditions. They wouldn't be asked to go above and beyond, delivering glossaries, taking extra annotations and comments, completing unpaid work that wasn't previously agreed upon. They would be treated with respect.

"The good news," Denizot said, "is European collaboration between us is at its best." Almost 20 professional groups have united under the banner AudioVisual Translators Europe, a federation that aims to improve working conditions for all media translators by working with and educating European institutions and legislators. Still, a lot remains to be done.

The art of subtitling is complex, combining skills from multiple realms, Uludag explains. Translation is only part of it. It's about knowing who you're translating for, mastering localization so people can appreciate the next Squid Game or Parasite the world over.

"Bring me a machine that can do that," Uludag says.

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