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The Netflix fail: why subtitles are currently such a hot topic

The Netflix fail: why subtitles are currently such a hot topic

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Until comparatively recently, foreign language films and TV series usually attracted small audiences in English speaking countries. But cross-border productions have become increasingly popular since the launch of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Satellite broadcasters and streaming platforms are now engaged in an intense battle to attract subscribers. Content is key to their success, and they are purchasing content from around the world to attract and retain their customers. The good news is that competition has driven diversity and choice. The bad news is that foreign language productions must be dubbed or subtitled, and that’s where things often go badly wrong.

The increasing demand for subtitling is keeping industry professionals busy. But the quality of many subtitles has been questioned. It has been suggested that the pressure to reduce costs and to adhere to harsh deadlines has resulted in poor translations that negatively impact viewing experiences.

Translation in the spotlight

subtitles in translation

Netflix is currently an organisation under fire due to the perceived poor quality of its subtitles. The enormous popularity of the Korean series Squid Games has seen an upsurge in complaints and raised the profile of the translation industry in the process. Translators have long believed that their work is underappreciated. It is certainly true that creating subtitles presents them with significant challenges.

Why are subtitles so challenging?

Subtitles are generally limited to roughly half the number of characters that would appear in literal translations of dialogue. This is because it must be possible for the audience to read and absorb the meaning of the subtitles in the same timeframe as the words are spoken. Lengthy subtitles leave readers struggling to keep up and will divert their attention away from the action for too long. Translators are presented with the very difficult task of maintaining the meaning of the dialogue while using far fewer words. It is hard enough to condense speech and retain its meaning in the same language. But the added complication of translating the dialogue can make life very tough indeed.

In addition, foreign language scripts will contain words for which there are no equivalents in the target language. There will be jokes that don’t travel across cultures and cultural references that the new audience simply won’t understand. These aspects of dialogue present the greatest challenges when subtitling, and they have reignited the debate over whether domestication or foreignization represents the best approach to translation.

What are domestication and foreignization strategies?

Domestication and foreignization are two contrasting approaches to translation that focus on the degree to which translators should adapt texts to conform to the culture of the target audience.

Domestication is a strategy that involves minimising the strangeness of terminology to the target audience. This is achieved by substituting the original words and references with commonly understood words from the target language together with commonly understood references from the target culture. For instance, if a board game that is popular in the source culture is not known in English speaking countries, the reference might be changed to Monopoly, Cluedo or Risk. Personal names, regional cuisine and historical figures may also be changed during the translation process. These substitutions should leave the reader feeling more comfortable and will ensure that they can absorb the meaning of the text quickly.

While domestication has its advantages, this strategy may result in information being lost in translation. As languages and many aspects of culture are so nuanced, what appear to be insignificant changes can result in the sense, style or full implications of the source text being lost or distorted.

Foreignisation is an alternative strategy that involves retaining words and references from the source text, even if these break the conventions of the target language or culture. Foreignisation produces translations that are more faithful to the original material but could see audiences feeling alienated or confused. Such translations do, however, leave the audience in no doubt that the source texts have been translated.

Subtitles: To domesticate or not to domesticate? That is the question.

The relative merits of domestication and foreignization have been debated for hundreds of years and were discussed long before the strategies were so named. Most translators today would accept that the two approaches may be used in parallel. There will always be certain portions of any text that are best domesticised and others that are best foreignized. 

The subtitles created for the aforementioned TV series, Squid Games, provide many excellent examples of how the approach to translating the source material should be carefully considered. For instance, in one episode, an expression was subtitled as: “You always have to get in trouble to know it’s trouble.” This was a domesticated version of the original Korean and a rather poor one. A foreignized version would have read something like, “you need to eat something before you can tell whether it is shit or doenjang”. As you wouldn’t need to know what doenjang is to make sense of this translation and it is closer to the original, it would have been more appropriate to have foreignised this comment. By the way, doenjang is a brown paste made from fermented soybeans and salt.

subtitles in translation

Korean speakers have pointed out that the word “oppa” meaning older brother, was translated as “old man” in the Squid Games dubbed dialogue and as “babe” in the English subtitles. East Asian languages feature terms for older and younger siblings, and these have culturally specific meanings when applied to people outside the family. There are no equivalents of these words in the English language. Foreignisation isn’t a viable option when tackling these words, but translators should take care to convey the original meaning when domesticating this type of vocabulary. Babe certainly isn’t an appropriate translation of oppa.

Domestication and foreignization strategies can be used in unison to create outputs that the target audience find easy to read and understand but which retain many of the nuances of the source material. 

But how do translators decide which strategy to employ and when? 

The course of translation never did run smooth

We recently looked at Skopos theory. This posits that the intended aim and impact of the source text should be reflected in outputs rather than the precise words used or the linguistic style. Skopos theory is worthy of consideration when translating film and TV dialogue. If the intended purpose of the words used in the source language is the primary consideration, it is easier for a translator to judge whether or not to substitute any cultural references.

What approach should be applied to translating this article into another language? The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noted that the featured headings “To domesticate or not to domesticate? That is the question” and “The course of translation never did run smooth” are both adaptations of well-known lines from Shakespeare. This fact would only be obvious in the original English. Were the order of the words to be changed when the lines were translated, the meaning would be retained but the reference to Shakespeare would be lost. A translator would need to consider the purpose of the choice of words. They may deduce that the words were chosen to be attention-grabbing and amusing. They may also find that utilising consecutive references to Shakespeare creates unity and imbues the piece with a theme. If the connection to Shakespeare is eliminated, the headings become simply mundane titles, and the thematic link disappears. It might be better for a translator to choose two lines from the literature of the target culture and adapt those to use as headings instead. In other words, the headings are good candidates for domestication.

subtitles in translation

Translators will always face dilemmas when dealing with any text or dialogue. Languages and cultures are so nuanced that it simply isn’t possible to perfectly translate every element of any source material. It will always be difficult to decide when to retain cultural references and when to substitute them. Every viewer or reader will interpret words differently anyway. While some viewers will possess a good knowledge of the source language or culture, others will know nothing about either. What level of understanding should a translator consider to be typical of the target audience? Should they change most cultural references to cater to the uniformed or substitute only a few in order to appeal to those with some understanding of the source culture? 

Translating text and dialogue can be like walking a tightrope. However, the skilful fusion of domestication and foreignization can produce text and subtitles that resonate well with a new audience while retaining the sense, character and impact of the source. 

How can Netflix improve subtitles?

The subtitles provided by Netflix aren’t quite there yet. Many of the issues that have been identified have had nothing to do with domestication or foreignization. They have simply been examples of poor attempts at literal translations. Netflix should perhaps consider allocating a larger budget for the creation of subtitles. It would also be advisable to afford translators more time to refine their outputs. What appear to be small errors can totally transform the audience’s viewing experience and completely alter the intended meaning of any dialogue.

Despite the shortcomings of its subtitles, Squid Games is now the most popular show on the Netflix platform. Just a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a foreign language show would attract such a huge audience in English speaking countries. The success of Squid Games is a sign of things to come, and so the translation industry could be facing something of a doenjang storm in the next few years. Subtitles look set to become a bigger and bigger issue. It will be more important than ever to get them right. But precisely what constitutes right is still hotly debated. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

How do you feel about Netflix subtitles? Have you enjoyed Squid Games or are the poor translations causing you to disconnect from the show rather than finding yourself absorbed in it?

subtitles in translation

#languageandcontext #subtitling #terminology

James Myatt

7 min read

Nov 20, 2021



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