Bij Nevero maken we audiovisuele projecten toegankelijk voor anderstaligen of mensen met een visuele of auditieve beperking.

Subtitling for Netflix

A couple of weeks ago a former trainee with Nevero drew my attention to an online article in which it said that Netflix were offering viewers the chance to earn some extra money by subtitling programmes. “It’s a shame ours isn’t a regulated occupation,” she said. Even though, according to the article, anyone can sign up and “all” you have to do is take a short test on Netflix’s website, the reality is rather different.

The first time I actually heard about the Netflix test was at the Languages & The Media conference in Berlin, which I attended in November 2016. During one of the presentations at the conference delegates from Netflix spoke about various difficulties they face as a company when outsourcing translation and subtitling work. Like many large media companies, Netflix generally don’t work together directly with translators and subtitlers but pass this work on to specialized subtitling agencies. Although these agencies have to meet various requirements and Netflix regularly carry out random checks, every viewer knows that the subtitles often leave a lot to be desired.

But that is not the only problem. Because even though all the organizations with which Netflix work claim they use professional subtitlers, it is impossible for Netflix to know who actually produces the subtitles they receive. With a bit of luck the work has, indeed, been done by someone with the necessary training and experience but an agency can just as easily have used a student, who does it to earn some extra cash, or a housewife, who does it as a hobby…

And, finally, Netflix have no idea how large their pool of translators actually is. Suppose each individual agency says they work with thirty subtitlers (professional ones, of course). If Netflix outsource the work to four different agencies, you would think that they will then be working with 4 times 30 equals 120 translators. Except that most freelancers work for a number of different customers, so instead of 120 translators it could be only 100, or even only 90.

For all these reasons Netflix have decided that all subtitlers who work for them have to take a test via their website. Following the test each individual translator is given a unique code (the so-called HERMES number or H number). That number is used from then on to identify that translator (and therefore also his or her work). As a result, Netflix know exactly who subtitles which programme, regardless of the agency in between. And they have a means of measuring the quality of individual translators. According to the presentations at the conference that information could be used, among other things, to pay good translators more, but this was met with scepticism by the subtitlers in the audience…

Languages and The Media conference catalogue and bag

Languages and The Media conference catalogue and bag

Back to 2017. On Thursday 30 March Netflix officially launched their HERMES test. On Sunday 2 April the first article appeared on Newsmonkey in which it said that Netflix were going to pay viewers to subtitle programmes. The story was rapidly picked up by other media and on Monday afternoon you could read in various places that Netflix were faced with a shortage of Dutch-speaking translators. But not to worry, those who passed the test would from now on be able to “get rich watching Netflix”. Also the rates these would-be subtitlers would receive were quoted everywhere. In RTLZ’s article, for example: “For subtitling Dutch audio with Dutch text (you will receive) 9.50 dollars per minute of video, English audio with Dutch text 11.5 dollars and Japanese audio with Dutch text 24.50 dollars. Translators who speak both Icelandic and Japanese can expect to be paid the highest amount of 27.50 dollars per minute of video.”

Reactions were not long in coming. On the one hand there were professional subtitlers who stated that those were the rates that Netflix pay their suppliers and that the translator generally doesn’t even receive half of that (on which you, as someone who is self-employed, pay a serious amount of tax, but that’s another story). In fact, it says this on Netflix’s own website under the heading “How much do subtitlers get paid?”. In addition, professional translators only work in their mother tongue. So it is ridiculous if you are Dutch-speaking to think that you can translate from Japanese into Icelandic.

On the other hand there were the reactions from enthusiastic Netflix viewers who, undeterred by their lack of any relevant training or even basic knowledge of the Dutch spelling rules, already saw the money rolling in. Indeed, lots of people wrote that they had already signed up to take the test in multiple languages.

And, here and there, there were ironic reactions too. For example, someone wrote: “Hurray! Netflix want to pay for subtitles! What’s next? They’re going to pay the actors too?” Other people rightly remarked that subtitling is a specialist skill and specialists have to be paid.

After a lively discussion on their Facebook page, RTLZ’s editorial office phoned Netflix for a reaction but the company did not wish to respond.

Apart from that, those who would still like to sign up for Netflix’s subtitling test can do so via this website: Right at the end of the introductory text it says the following: “If you’re a professional subtitler interested in taking the test, you can take it here” (note the words “professional” and “subtitler”). And after that the company states that the volume of applications has exceeded even their expectations. I wonder how many are from Dutch-speaking Netflix viewers who have seriously overestimated their abilities…

published on 19 April 2017 (originally published in Dutch on 7 April 2017)