Has Netflix Revolutionized The Subtitling And Voiceover Industry?

Streaming video sites like YouTube and Netflix have been one of the shock successes of the internet age, taking advantage of increases in bandwidth across the globe to introduce an entirely new business model that has already seen off the likes of Blockbuster and your local library video lending shelf, and is even forcing TV stations to switch their emphasis from broadcast to catch-up streaming services.

It isn’t a huge surprise then that the services which are changing the way we watch, are changing the way we watch in every way, right down to consumption of foreign media.  Setting their sights on being global purveyors of video media – and exposing their entire catalogs to unprecedentedly large international audiences – Netflix and friends have had to tackle a swathe of localization problems up to and including long-standing conventions in the presentation of films in other languages, revolutionizing the subtitling and voiceover industries along the way.

Subtitles naturally still remain the first port of call for a lot of films online: the SRT files are quick to produce, and require very little bandwidth to download, and streaming means they can be added continuously, rather than consumers being stuck with the options on the DVD release forever.  They are cheap, relatively speaking, to produce and disseminate, although quality is still a concern for producers and distributors.

Although the file sizes are inevitably larger, the same ease of distribution applies to dubbed soundtracks as well, so the number of available voiceovers for a video can be scaled over time, with demand – even that created by the platforms themselves.  Historically, dubbed films have been a hard sell to audiences in the UK, who preferred to watch with subtitles – possibly due to conventionally poor standards of dubbing.  However, this paradigm has been challenged by Netflix, who released hit shows The Rain (originally Danish) and Dark (German) in the UK primarily with English voiceovers, largely by the original casts, with some success.  This was based on research which found that despite stated preferences, audiences tended to stick with a series longer if it was dubbed.

Dubbing into English didn’t necessarily present a huge challenge in itself, however – most of the cast already spoke it fluently as a second language, and were able to dub their own parts.  But applying this approach across 130 countries means Netflix has also had to tackle working at scale, translating not only subtitles and dubbing scripts, but their other website and UI content – titles, blurbs, reviews, etc., for a huge selection of media.

Research into target markets has therefore been essential – picking which languages and content to target in which locations.  But their localization goes right into the code, optimized for creating new keyboards, partnering with linguists to gather feedback, and cutting down on manual file handling through careful use of automation.

Translation man-power is still absolutely essential in the entertainment market, however: especially in the best and most popular scripts, nuances and idioms in actors’ lines simply can’t be caught and translated by machines.  Finding linguists and voiceover artists who can work within this vast and evolving process presents its own challenge, so Netflix has a hybrid resourcing model, using both in-house staff, and outsourcing to freelancers and vendors for other localization.  Working on such a huge scale, they have addressed potential pitfalls in quality in a number of ways, including the HERMES system, an online subtitling and translation test and indexing system, assessing new localization providers.

Streaming on the internet has certainly paved the way for providers like these to disrupt not only the media industry, including subtitling and V/O, but the field of localization itself, and it’s a very exciting time to be working – we can’t wait to see what comes next!


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