Last month, bilingual Korean-American influencer Youngmi Mayer took to TikTok and Twitter, bemoaning what she considered to be botched English subtitles on Netflix’s hit series Squid Game. She argued that important nuances had been lost in translation. Others chimed in: the French and Hindi subtitles were junk too, and the English dubbing was a joke. Although many translation professionals say that the criticism was unfair, the pile-on was picked up by major news outlets.
The controversy drew a bright spotlight onto a rarely discussed industry at the heart of major international streaming platforms: language service providers, or LSPs. These are companies that provide outsourced subtitling, captioning, and dubbing through a global network of contract subtitle translators, voice-over actors, translation editors, and sound mixers. It also underscored a looming concern for streaming services: a shortage of quality translators who can handle an increasingly global audience.
“Squid Game is another sign that there is a demand for locally produced media entertainment content above and beyond local audiences — for Korean content outside of Korea, for Mexican content outside of Mexico,” Paolo Sigismondi, a professor at the University of Southern California who researches the global entertainment industry, told Rest of World. Most of the over 111 million viewers who have now seen the gory Korean-language Netflix series watched with subtitles in one of 31 languages or via 13 dubbed versions. LSPs are critical to the distribution of that local content on a global scale. But because of a labor shortage and no viable automated solution, the translation industry is being pushed to its limits.
“I can tell you literally, this industry will be out of supply over demand for the upcoming two to three years,” David Lee, the CEO of Iyuno-SDI, one of the industry’s largest subtitling and dubbing providers, told Rest of World. “Nobody to translate, nobody to dub, nobody to mix –– the industry just doesn’t have enough resources to do it.” Interviews with industry leaders reveal most streaming platforms are now at an inflection point, left to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice on quality to subtitle their streaming roster.
Back in 2016, from an office in Los Angeles, Netflix launched in 130 global markets simultaneously. And today, viewers outside of North America are driving much of the company’s growth. Although Netflix lost 400,000 subscribers in the U.S. and Canada last quarter, it netted more than 1 million new subscribers in the Asia-Pacific region. Netflix is not alone in making international subscribers core to the future of its business.
Disney+, HBO Max, and Iflix are also competing on the global stage, and each new market entrance demands translation resources. For services like Disney+, which has a deep catalog, the company needs to line up translation services for everything from the latest Marvel series and other original programming to its archived library of film and television as well as outdated localizations from old international releases. According to Chris Fetner, the director of the Entertainment Globalization Association (EGA), a trade association for localization companies, the next few years could see a pileup of translation orders around the world.
Fetner, who spent nine years as a Netflix executive, building the platform’s localization strategies, said that until recently, the LSP industry could cope with demand. “When I was at Netflix, we got comfortable with the industry always absorbing our work. And it’s really hitting a saturation point, where the sponge can’t take any more water right now,” he said. Many member organizations of the EGA say they cannot take new work until after 2022, according to Fetner. “Every day, I hear somebody talk about how they had to turn work down.”
Training a new generation of translators to meet this supply issue in certain translation hot spots will take time, and most importantly, better compensation, said Lee, whose company Iyuno-SDI operates in over 100 languages and routinely clocks in over 600,000 episodes of translations every year. Lee said that roughly one in 50 applicants are able to pass Iyuno-SDI’s translator qualification exam. “I don’t think we’re happy with even 10% or 15% of who we work with,” he said. “We just have no other options because there’s just not enough professional translators.” When the company does contract less-qualified translators, Lee said they invest in more-thorough quality checks and edits to maintain overall quality. Last year, several major European translator associations blacklisted Iyuno-SDI, discouraging their members from working for the company due to increasing cuts to their freelance subtitling rates.
Poor compensation is another reason for the labor shortage, making it difficult to keep good translators in the industry for long. Netflix pays $13 per minute for translation of Korean audio into English subtitles, but only a fraction of that figure ends up directly in the pockets of translators.
Data suggests that even ahead of the looming translation crunch, subtitle quality is already a concern for some European viewers. According to a recent study by the EGA, of 15,000 streaming subscribers surveyed in Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, 61% had encountered poor subtitling or dubbing quality on a monthly basis. And 70% had stopped a TV show or film in the last year as a result.
Florencia Lago, who subtitled Squid Game into Spanish from her home in the northern Patagonia region of Argentina, told Rest of World that she routinely takes on freelance projects subtitling Korean, Japanese, and Chinese film and television for Latin American audiences. “I have never worked with anything that has been so successful [Squid Game],” she said. “It’s been pretty shocking.”
Lago, who was hired by Iyuno-SDI, said she was assigned work for Squid Game via English templating. An industry term, also known as pivot translation, this technique is when a subtitle script is first translated in English before being translated into a subsequent language. Lago, after all, is an English-Spanish translator and doesn’t speak Korean.
English templating is the industry norm, not an anomaly. That means non-English-speaking Netflix subscribers are often watching subtitles that have been filtered through a layer of English translation.
LSPs use English templating as both a cost-cutting maneuver and a tool to scale. For instance, while there may be only a few dozen Korean-French translators working professionally on subtitling, there are plenty of Korean-English and English-French translators in the industry. Though English templating can be more efficient, translation researchers say that the process can deteriorate the quality. Others argue it’s problematic when English mediates expression into so many other languages.
“Translating Korean into French through English makes as much sense as translating French to English through Korean,” François-Xavier Durandy, a Hindi-French translator whose subtitling work has screened at Cannes, told Rest of World over email. Durandy equated English templating to subtitling malpractice.
In recent years, there have been efforts to automate translation as a means of coping with the deluge of new content. Iyuno-SDI has made investments in machine learning translation and automated quality checks, but executives say that the quality of the AI isn’t currently good enough to replace humans. In some instances, machine learning is currently used to generate a first-draft translation, which is then edited or disregarded by a human subtitler as they see fit. The shortcomings of AI in handling the art of subtitling means that there’s no quick fix to the translator crunch.
Recent attention to localization quality has not gone unnoticed by streaming services. In response to the wave of criticism against Squid Game’s subtitles, Netflix hired Sharon Choi, the interpreter who went viral at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony — where she translated for Parasite director Bong Joon Ho — to take a second pass on the subtitles. Her name is now displayed alongside the original translator of Squid Game’s English-language subtitled version. Iyuno-SDI has also seen an uptick in clients investing in subtitling high-priority shows via direct translation, as opposed to English templating, to improve quality.
“You want it to be very good, but when you try to go to perfection, the return on investment becomes uninteresting,” said Fetner. “Having something that’s 95% satisfying, I think most of us would say that’s great. And to move that 5%, it’s expensive.” Many platforms will have come away from the Squid Game controversy knowing that, despite any flaws, subscribers were still watching.