When criticism of the subtitles from the viral Korean TV show Squid Game took the Internet by storm several weeks ago, reporters mounted a slew of investigations into why and how localization could go so wrong.
For what it’s worth, Jennifer O’Donnell wrote for the Japan Times  about why this criticism wasn’t even necessarily valid. But regardless of this particular case, it’s clear that translation and subtitle quality has become a major concern in the global streaming era.
Various themes and answers emerged: a lack of suitable translators. Supply that can’t keep up with demand. Insufficient machine translation technology. Low rates. Lack of educational infrastructure to train translators.
Some of these statements are claims wielded by localization and entertainment executives to distract from the primary cause for localization quality’s failure to keep up with the global entertainment boom of the early 2020s. And that is, simply put: an industry-wide refusal to pay translators what their work is worth.
Lack of investment says it all
In an excellent reported story for The Guardian, a quote from J-E audiovisual translator Katrina Leonoudakis cuts to the heart of the matter . Leonoudakis cites a study by Roehampton University’s Pablo Romero-Fresco:
“Over 50% of the revenue obtained by most current films comes from translated (dubbing, subtitling) and accessible versions (subtitling for the deaf, audio description for the blind), yet only 0.01%-0.1% of the budget is spent on these additional versions. To compound matters further, these additional versions are usually produced with limited time or money, for little remuneration, and traditionally involving zero contact with the creative team.”
To restate: Less than 0.1% of films’ budgets are invested in the necessary procedure that opens up films to 50% of their total revenue.
Localization is All-Important
Translation is an essential and necessary part of the entertainment production process. But companies clearly think that they can cheap out on it. They outsource the process to massive localization corporations with burdensome procedures and pitiful rates that good translators are routinely recommended to avoid .
Yes, the spike in demand for global entertainment has certainly put a strain on the talent pool. But the entertainment industry’s unwillingness to pay skilled language professionals to produce high-quality localizations is entirely a matter of choice.
What is a “good translation” worth?
“There is no lower limit [in pay]. It goes all the way to almost zero,” Max Deryagin, chair of the British Subtitlers’ Association, told Miranda Bryant for The Guardian. As an editor and translator working mainly with manga and light novels, I can say that the people I work with and for whom I bring on new hires pay reasonable rates. But this has turned into an anomaly. Somehow, rates seem to move in the reverse direction of demand. (Which rises with every passing year.)
To understand how absurd rates can get in the localization industry, one first needs to understand the nature of the task of translation, especially good translation.
The true complexity of translation
Translation is not a 1:1 process. To start off with, most good translators have a strong understanding of the kernel of meaning present in the original text. They then craft new sentences to convey that meaning in the target language. Borrowing from Judy Wakabayashi’s Japanese-English Translation: An Advanced Guide, here are the absolute bare minimum basics a translator needs to translate a single paragraph of Japanese:
- A contextual understanding of Japanese vocabulary beyond a dictionary.
- Ability to process the nuances of Japanese grammatical structures and choose relative equivalents in English. (Most Japanese grammatical structures do not have direct equivalents in English.)
- Knowledge and understanding of Japanese proverbs, idioms, metaphors, and allusions. The creativity to come up English equivalents depending on context.
- Knowledge and understanding of the nuances of technicalities: Japanese names, numbers, punctuation, and suffixes. The ability to come up with English equivalents depending on context
- Grasp of nuances of Japanese language like indirectness, euphemisms, self-deprecation, repetition, and politeness. The ability to process these based on the purpose and audience of a text how directly or indirectly to render these “Japan-isms”
- English writing ability.
To complete all of those steps, a translator will need 5+ years of full-time Japanese study and extended time in Japan. That’s on top of the same level of writing education and skill required by a job in copywriting, screenwriting, journalism, etc.
With those basic qualifications, a good translation of a single sentence can take just a few seconds to translate in the simplest case scenario. But it can take well over ten minutes when one needs research, brainstorming, and revision to produce a high-quality translation.
That much work, for this much pay?
The worst of these localization outsourcing companies pay $1 for a minute of screen time. But that single minute could involve dozens of sentences, or even an entire page of text! Spending less than fifteen minutes translating a page of text is unlikely to produce an adequate translation, much less a good one. (Remember, one sentence could take that long.) So we’re talking a few dollars for an hour of work.
Given all of the above skills and qualifications I mentioned, what is a fair salary for a subtitler? Is it $30 per hour ($60,000 per year)? $35 or $40 per hour? Consider that many of the best translators out there have master’s degrees or PhDs.
Per the “industry standard” $7 per minute found at many large companies, a subtitler would have to translate at least five minutes of screen time per hour to make $60,000 a year. Six minutes to make $80,000.
Let’s be real. If the company hiring cared about producing high-quality localizations for hit pop culture-defining shows, $10 per minute would be the bare minimum to allow translators to actually do their work properly and receive a fair salary.
Good translators don’t use bad systems
One thing is certain: Entertainment and localization companies devalue the labor of translation compared to the value it brings to the product. Even worse, poor labor conditions drive talent away from the market and discourage promising translators from ever getting started.
But the current state of translated literature delivers a critical blow to the out-of-proportion claims of a limited talent pool. Literature in translation also pulls above its weight. Less than three percent of U.S. titles are works in translation, but the category accounts for seven to eight percent of sales . And foreign language literature currently has an abundance of talented translators that deal with dense literary material. I’ve worked on anime episodes and novels, and would say that novels pose different but not typically more complex challenges.
If entertainment companies were to view translation as a talent and not as labor to be exploited, they could easily bid among talented literary translators to get them to work on promising shows.
Entertainment invests in the talent that makes entertainment: actors, writers, directors. So why refuse to invest in translation? Why refuse to invest in the process that opens up the product to half of its revenue?
Netflix had an operating profit of $4.6 billion in 2020.  It’s glaringly obvious that entertainment executives concerned about translation quality could fix it with a bit of cash.
A textbook case of biased sources
The most widespread article on this topic became a reported story by Andrew Deck for Rest of World . The article argues that a shortage of translators is the primary issue. But a quick look at the interviewees that argue this point inevitably reveal all that a reader needs to know:
- David Lee, the CEO of Iyuno-SDI, one of the industry’s largest subtitling and dubbing providers.
- Chris Fetner, the director of the Entertainment Globalization Association (EGA), a trade association for localization companies, who spent nine years as a Netflix executive.
That’s it. Yes, Deck based the claim that “there’s just not enough professional translators” on interviews with a localization outsourcing executive and a former Netflix executive. Deck also interviewed translators for the piece, but they discussed the translation process, not the bigger picture.
The previously-mentioned Guardian article by Miranda Bryant sheds light on these claims. Bryant makes it clear that subtitlers are leaving the industry in droves because of terrible pay and working conditions. The interviewees for this story were:
- Professor Jorge Díaz-Cintas of the Centre for Translation Studies at University College London.
- Max Deryagin, chair of the British Subtitlers’ Association and a representative of Audiovisual Translators Europe.
- Silhee Jin, president of the Korea Association of Translators and Interpreters and a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
- Mara Campbell, chief operating officer and founder of True Subtitles
- Multiple professional translators and subtitlers.
The real issue at play = pay
Of course, all of these people have their own biases. But it is a well-rounded enough group to demonstrate that the article by Rest of World spread blatantly biased and misleading information. The American Translators’ Association even went out of its way to publicize a press release making this exact claim . Unfortunately, the Rest of World article went very much viral.
More balanced reporting would come to a very different conclusion. The immense profits pocketed by entertainment companies directly result from the exploitation of translators. And they come at the expense of good localization.
What to Read Next
 The limitations of audio-visual translation in shows like ‘Squid Game’. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2021/11/12/language/squid-game-translation/
 Where have all the translators gone? https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/nov/14/where-have-all-the-translators-gone
 Tweet by @avteur. https://twitter.com/avteur/status/1311302633920040963
 Lost translations. https://theoutline.com/post/7319/amazon-crossing-translation-publishing
 ‘Bridgerton’ Boost: Netflix U.K. Revenue Jumped in 2020 on Increased Production Despite Pandemic. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/netflix-britain-revenue-2020-bridgerton-production-1235031797/
 Lost in translation: The global streaming boom is creating a severe translator shortage. https://restofworld.org/2021/lost-in-translation-the-global-streaming-boom-is-creating-a-translator-shortage/
 An Open Letter to Call for Fair Working Conditions for Translators in the Entertainment Industry from the
American Translators Association. https://www.atanet.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ATAs-Open-Letter-Calling-for-Fair-Working-Conditions-for-Translators-in-the-Entertainment-Industry.pdf