Why You Should Care About Netflix’s New Subtitler Testing Platform

You’ve heard about it. It has been sweeping through social media: Netflix has launched a massive campaign to recruit subtitlers working into over 20 different languages.

To do so, they created a one-of-a-kind testing platform, which they claim to be a fail-proof and accurate way to test the skills of applicants. Let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth:

“[…] designed to be highly scalable and consists of thousands of randomized combinations of questions so that no two tests should be the same. The rounds consist of multiple choice questions given at a specifically timed pace, designed to test the candidate’s ability to:
- Understand English
- Translate idiomatic phrases into their target language
- Identify both linguistic and technical errors
- Subtitle proficiently”

“Bah! Humbug!” you groan. “I don’t do subtitling. Who cares!” you add, finishing it all off with your best angsty teenager eyeroll.

But this is why, my fellow language professional, you should really care about Hermes: the name Netflix gave to its new testing platform for subtitler-wannabes — not to be confused with the luxury brand, which you’re welcome to care about, also.

The Smashing Pumpkins, the band, got lost in translation. This is what Netflix hopes to avoid with its brand new subtitling platform.

Netflix has obviously learned from its mistakes

Hermes is Netflix’s most sophisticated Franken-creature to date, following in the footsteps of a previous experiment with crowdsourcing, known as Amara.

It is safe to infer that Hermes’ older sister-platform was a failure, although Netflix never publicly admitted it. As any language professional knows well, crowdsourcing translations (or in this case, subtitles) is just another term for having “people who know languages work for free.”

Sadly, crowd-sourced translations, as you might have noticed, are all around us in the digital world. Facebook has used it shamelessly, as has Google (I guess Google Translate wasn’t good enough for them). If you look at apps on iTunes or shop for Google Chrome extensions, most developers openly welcome fan translations — in some instances, they even beg for them.

This, of course, is yet another example of how our profession — and here I include translators, interpreters, transcribers, subtitlers and assorted misfits — continues to be devalued by the public at large. And here, in part, we must admit our fault: it is evident that, thus far, we have failed to educate them.

Nevertheless, there’s still hope. Having worked for apps and startups myself as a temp in-house translator, I can tell you that most tech firms do eventually learn from their initial mistake. A programmer who kindda speaks another language, does not a translator make — imagine that!

Whereas larger companies such as Facebook, Google and Netflix, perhaps do have enough influence to quickly recruit a team of volunteer translators who perform temporary fixes, they have the decency to hire professionals later on in the process to smooth it over, once whatever they’re working on is ready to go public.

And in their dismissal of the crowd-sourced Amara in favor of the talent-seeking Hermes, it means that Netflix has learned that you can’t just have random users or developers doing a professional’s job. And that they’re ready to seek out the best and the brightest subtitlers out there — kind of.

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Still, we can’t overlook what lies beneath: a company has developed its own version of a proficiency test that will assign each subtitler a score and rank them.

Netflix cites issues with maintaining quality standards when working with several subcontractors as the reason behind this move, so they have cut out the middleman (the agencies) and have created their own system to judge our competence as professionals. This is what they say:

“There is no common registration through a professional organization which captures the total number of professional media translators worldwide, no license numbers, accreditations, or databases for qualified professionals. For instance, the number of working, professional Dutch subtitlers is estimated to be about 100–150 individuals worldwide. We know this through market research Netflix conducted during our launch in the Netherlands several years ago, but this is a very anecdotal “guesstimate” and the actual number remains unknown to the industry.”

I smell a move to save money, hidden behind a facade of caring about quality assurance.

And you know why they can do this? Because we, as language professionals, have failed to formalize our profession. That is why in today’s upside-down world, our clients are increasingly doing it for us. If that’s not a sign to stop with our dilly-dallying and band together, I don’t know what is.

Still, there is a silver lining: this move by Netflix should cause off a commotion among agencies, hopefully getting them to work on those QA deficiencies that had Netflix going off in search of greener pastures.

This agency flaw is already what gives solopreneur linguists an edge over agencies, but if the latter focus more on quality assurance than their bottom lines, the consumer will win in the long run. And this could, in turn, further counteract the devaluing of our profession.

Show Me The Money

Those Netflix users among you, might have noticed how the company sneakily hiked their prices last year. A bold move, but given their continued expansion, a profitable one. Users, on the other hand, have also been able to enjoy high-quality Netflix original series.

With their growing customer base and their higher rates, one could say that company has been making a steady profit. But, will there be money to pay their new subtitler recruits decent wages? Or will they go the way of Amazon, recruiting translators for their item descriptions for quasi slave wages.

Lisa Calabrini an Outsourcing Specialist at Amazon.com, informed me in an email exchange, that their rates were between €0.04-€0.10 per word, depending on a “project-per-project basis”. And of course, we all know what that means. And beware fellow linguist, the e-shopping giant is also sticking its stingy nose into literary translation, courtesy of AmazonCrossing.

If anything, it seems quite suspicious that a company like Netflix will go through the effort of testing, shortlisting and creating a database of contributors, without first discussing rates out in the open. If their intention is to attract talent, this is not the way to do it: a professional subtitler would not perform a test — much less for free — without prior agreement on fair rates.

I have contacted Netflix to inquire about the rates they plan to offer, but I am yet to receive an answer. If I do, I will update this post. Meanwhile, feel free to also ask them yourself.