Sin of series, but ‘good subtitles are gone’

The big Netflix competitor HBO Max started in March in the Netherlands, but it was not without problems. In many films and series, the Dutch subtitles were missing or were incorrect. It rained grumbling on social media.

The startup problems needed to be resolved quickly, the company said. But even now, those translations are far from in order.

Also at Netflix there has been in recent times complaintsaccording to the subtitles themselves due to low wages and high time pressure.

‘Need for fast translations’

It’s a sign of a time when streaming services are booming, says the Dutch Writers’ Association, which hopes to come up with a quality label for subtitles soon. With the arrival of new names ‘The need for fast translations’ is growing, says Peter Bosma, subtitle and board member. And the hands? “I have the impression that there is a shortage.”

That impression is also present in the subtitle company Iyuno-SDI. The flow of series, films and documentaries has made subtitles the ‘lifeblood of streaming services’, says the company, which provides services to most major media companies in the Netherlands and employs 2,800 people worldwide.

“Demand is higher than ever,” said Chris Carey, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We do our best to keep up.”

Concerns about quality

It puts pressure on quality. “I’ve seen screenshots of things that really can’t be done,” Bosma says. According to the subtitle, more and more companies are working with machine translation and series are translated via templates with text and time codes that must not deviate. This means that subtitles are often made ‘too literal and too long’, he says.

Examples: ‘He was cut with a knife’, ‘inflated to death’, swear words that are actually impossible; you encounter it all. “Even Google Translate would do better,” some viewers believe.


It also depends on the person or persons doing the translation. Companies more often make use of young, not specifically trained employees. Recently, many new people have joined, for whom translation is not their main activity, says Bosma. To reduce staff shortages, but also to reduce costs. “Sometimes it’s more of a side job.”

According to Bosma, this is not at all the case for many professional translators. Translating is not a protected profession, but many courses are at the HBO level. Good translators often have many years of experience and have completed language and culture studies.

‘Busier than ever’

Also freelance subtitles Erna Auf der Haar. According to her, there are more who ‘do it next door’. And you can, because you do not necessarily need more expensive proprietary software to be able to subtitle. You log in to a company and you can go. She herself is busier than ever: “It’s wild.”

Want a series translated today? Then you’re out of luck: “It takes me at least a day to finish an episode of Friends,” she says. Auf der Haar works mainly for intermediaries, such as Iyuno-SDI and Plint, which provide translation services for the big names. She can make a living from that, she says. “But it really is not a fat pot.”

Huge sin

According to the freelancer, it is also because good subtitling takes a lot of time. It’s not the quantity of orders. “Sometimes the same job comes in through multiple channels,” she says.

A good translation is compact, well-timed, with an eye for detail. But not too much: As a viewer, you must also be able to see, says the expert. Good work therefore takes time, but this is not always the case in today’s market: “I have seen examples where you think: was this translated by a child?” Auf der Haar is worried about it. “It’s a huge shame.”

Hammering on quality

Streaming and translation services promise to emphasize quality themselves. According to Carey, his business is growing fast and finding new talent is one of the biggest challenges. “We have strict standards, quality control and training to ensure quality,” he says without going into details.

Netflix also promises to be mindful. The company says through a spokesman that there is a permanent team of subtitles working on improvement. Customer feedback on this is also appreciated, the spokesman said. Subtitle work is a matter of ‘details and nuances’.

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