With Minnal Murali, Netflix turned heads in the Indian market. Released on Christmas Eve 2021, the superhero origin film follows a village tailor who is struck by lightning and develops supernatural powers. In its first week, Minnal Murali placed third on Netflix’s Global Top 10 list of most-watched non-English movies and has now accumulated over 25 million streaming hours. The film’s success on Netflix is partly attributable to translations: filmed in the South Indian regional language Malayalam, the blockbuster was eventually dubbed into Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and English as well as subtitled in over a dozen international languages.
That work was done by translators like Adavi Joshi, who works as a freelance dubbing professional in India’s southern state of Karnataka. A Joshi worked for a prominent streaming vendor to dub the film into his native Kannada, a regional language spoken by 43 million people.
Joshi says that when Netflix and Amazon Prime first entered India in 2016, the Kannada translation industry for film was nearly nonexistent. Today, his business is thriving, with dubbing projects coming in for both international players and emerging regional services that specialize in local language content. In the last two years alone, he says he’s seen a 200% growth in the number of freelancers working in Kannada “localization,” the term for adapting a film so it can be distributed in a regional market.
The skyrocketing demand for these services in India echoes trends in the global translation industry. The industry, formally known as language service providers, or LSPs, includes companies that provide subtitling, captioning, and dubbing for streaming content through their network of translators, voice-over actors, dubbing directors, and sound mixers. Many LSPs around the world are struggling to contract enough talent to keep pace with the rise of streaming translation orders, as Rest of World reported in November.
In India, which has 22 officially recognized languages, rising demand for translation services, along with an expanding field of translators, has become a double-edged sword: lucrative for many burgeoning LSPs but often punishing for established professionals who are seeing new entrants drive down rates.
Several Indian translators who spoke to Rest of World said they have had to take on more projects, on shorter time lines, to maintain the same level of income. “Everybody at some point is going to be under pressure from competition, and the question is, if someone else can do it cheaper, why can’t you?” said Mona Shetty, the CEO of Sound & Vision India, one of the largest and longest operating LSPs in the entertainment industry in the country, who hired Joshi to dub Minnal Murali.
Shetty says that in a rush to meet the nearest deliverable deadline, it’s been hard for competing LSPs to step back and address industrywide problems. In her view, short-term cost cutting to satisfy the bottom lines of streaming services may be eroding the quality of translators working in the industry. “We’re just trying to keep up and catch up,” she told Rest of World. “I mean, everyone’s jumping onto a running train right now.”
In the meantime, translators like Vivek Ranjit are being left behind in the gold rush. A celebrated freelance subtitler and screenwriter who specializes in Malayalam film, Ranjit says he is still charging the same rate he charged before the streaming boom, with competitors now regularly undercutting his quotes. “I haven’t been able to increase even 500 rupees or 1,000 rupees more than I charged back in 2015,” he told Rest of World. “Even after all these years of experience, I can’t hike my price, so I lose my worth.”
Ranjit has taken on a higher volume of projects since the pandemic, to maintain his freelance income and offset inflation. Some of these projects are also on increasingly tight deadlines. Ranjit says that in extreme cases he’s been asked to subtitle a feature film for a streaming service — a project that can take more than a week to complete — in as little as one to two business days.
Veteran translator Rekhs says that the rise of streaming services has changed how distributors see the translation industry over the past decade. She has over 500 film credits to her name, and her work is regarded within the industry as the gold standard for South Indian cinema. But that appreciation has not converted to increased wages. Her standing rate ranges between 41,000 rupees and 52,000 rupees [$550 and $700], depending upon the target language of translation, which has not increased in several years.
“We are digging our own grave,” Rekhs said. “There are students that are half-baked idiots, who agree to do it, and there are producers who don’t care. And so they just say, Fine, here’s somebody who’s willing to do it for 15,000 rupees or even 5,000 rupees [$200 or even $60]. Do you think it’s fair?”
Sameer Brar is the general manager of Native Ninja, a subtitling and dubbing firm that clocks 10,000 hours of translation every year. Brar estimates that with inflation, their rates should have grown by 40% over the past four years but instead have dropped by nearly 40%. Brar says Western streaming companies have pushed some rate standardization in India, and it’s often regional streaming players who are guilty of driving the hardest bargain. “People who are complaining don’t understand that we are the ones who started the stream cut first. Somebody is ready to work at that lower price. Now it has become a standard,” Brar said.
Even major translation clients pay less for Hindi than for some languages. Netflix global rates cards list $30 for every minute of content subtitled from English audio to Japanese, but just $9.00 for every minute of English-Hindi subtitling. Subcontracted translators will often pocket only a fraction of this payout.
Before 2016, India’s film translation industry largely serviced the domestic film industry, with dubbing studios in Mumbai ruling the market. And until 2013, subtitling meant laser-printing translations at the bottom of film reels, which happened at the regional offices of the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), a state-run agency. During the shift to digital, subtitling expanded to Indian films that were screened on the international film festival circuit. But it wasn’t until the rise of video streaming services that the practice truly became mainstream.
To meet rising demand, larger translation firms often recruited interns out of college who had studied in general media fields and trained them in dubbing and subtitling from scratch. Sound & Vision India, which is based in Mumbai, says that they invest in between two and three years of on-the-job training for each of their recruits. But keeping that talent during the current translation gold rush has been a challenge.
Shetty says there are plenty of promising translator candidates for subtitling and dubbing scripts in India, a country full of polyglots. But the most credentialed prospects frequently choose to leave the industry for higher paying and more stable professions.
“They get totally hustled by the crazy deadlines and the low pay,” said Shetty, who estimates that Sound & Vision sees a churn of most of its new translators every two to three years. “I know a lot of capable people who have run away because I’m not giving them the time and the space to do the job.”
In some European markets, organized translation unions help professionals in the industry advocate for better compensation and working conditions. Several major European translator associations, for example, have blacklisted Iyuno-SDI, a prominent global LSP, and discouraged their members from working for the company due to increasing cuts to their freelance subtitling rates. The lack of organizing in the Indian market means there’s little leverage for translators or local LSPs to collectively demand higher wages or greater benefits for translators.
Sandeep Nulkar, a veteran of the Indian translation industry, says that an Indian trade association for LSP companies could help address issues such as nonstandard quality of work, establish certification courses to build talent pipelines, and help build legitimacy in the eyes of local and international media buyers.
Over the past two decades, Nulkar has been a part of three failed attempts to start a trade association within the fractured industry, which is largely made up of small LSP vendors. Each effort, he says, was foiled due to infighting among participants. In 2020, the European Union Associations of Translation Companies, the premier association for LSPs in Europe, started showing interest in “India as the next frontier” of organizing. With EUATC’s support, Nulkar recently started CITLoB, the Confederation of Interpreting, Translation and Localisation Businesses.
Part of CITLoB’s charter is to encourage the creation of sponsored university initiatives that support workshops and academic programs to expand the translation talent pool. “We are encouraging our members to go out and conduct training programs. So we are saying that we will back your course, and the industry association [will] approve the course,” said Nulkar. Once a batch of students graduate, the association will help students land internships.
The association has brought together over 100 companies but has yet to onboard the entertainment-specialized LSPs, like Sound & Vision, most embedded in the streaming boom. A guild run by translators themselves appears even further out of reach, with very few venues available for freelance translators to meet and organize.
In the meantime, some translators told Rest of World that while the Indian LSP industry will continue to grow, quality will become a pressing issue if fair pay is not addressed. “I say, if you want quality, this is your price,” Rekhs said. To streaming services driving hard bargains, she says, “If you are prepared to pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”