Online streaming has brought a wide range of vernacular movies and shows to the mainstream, over the last few years. Today, movies made on a small budget are now available across the world without having to rope in distributors or spend heavily on promotions.
Audiences too are readily exploring other movies made in other languages. Just within the last year, 47 per cent of the originals created by streaming platforms, and 62 per cent of the movies launched on these platforms weren’t in Hindi.
The key feature in making a local movie global is removing the language barrier. This is accomplished with the help of dubbing artists and translators who create appropriate subtitles for each scene. Both of these groups are responsible for translating to and from the local languages.
No Benefits from the Streaming Boom
As the share of non-Hindi content rises, the opportunities for the translation industry are growing exponentially. Yet, translators who subtitle movies and shows, struggle with making money.
The rise in vernacular streaming has also brought in a number of new translators ready to offer their services at much lower costs than established players.
The result is often subtitling that at best just translates the basic necessities of each dialogue, and at worst ends up meaning something entirely different.
Agencies that offer these services must compete with other agencies to bag a project in an industry dominated by just a few large streaming platforms.
The significant numbers of new freelancers in the field mean that labour is abundant. Hence, contracts are won at low costs, and the work is contracted off to freelancers ready to work at much lower prices.
According to Netflix’s rate card, English to Hindi translation is $9 for each minute, which is on the relatively lower end. Further, the agencies themselves take a chunk of the money and pay the balance to the subtitle writers.
Why are Good Translators not Paid Higher Rates?
Commoditised products are interchangeable with no difference between the products produced by two competitors. For instance, steel, coal, and oil are classic examples of commodity products, where no differentiation exists.
In subtitling, there are significant differences between good and shoddy translations. Yet, the activity is viewed as a commodity product. The ultimate consumer of a subtitled vernacular movie is an audience that does not understand the language being spoken.
All they understand is the subtitle on the screen, making it impossible for them to discern between good and lousy subtitling unless a major mistake occurs. Till the time the subtitles do their basic job, the audience would have little objection to bad subtitling.
Only someone who understands both the subtitles and the language can estimate the magnitude of damage done by the translators. Hence, there is little incentive to focus on high subtitle quality.
Further, streaming platforms are focused on continually bringing in new content on their platforms to keep viewers hooked. Language-related work is usually done at the end of each project, making it dependent on the leftovers of the budget.
As a result, language service providers are viewed as replaceable, and the lowest cost provider ends up being hired. A similar situation exists across other countries like , where rates for subtitling have fallen with time despite the growth of the OTT platforms.
The translation rates in Japan have fallen almost 25 per cent due to undercutting by players. Even in 1982, a New York Times highlighted similar problems faced by film dubbing artists during that era – which likely indicates that the competitive and commoditised industry structure has been around for a long.
Streaming platforms have been spending heavily in India in order to bolster their content base. From roping in industry talent for originals to buying media rights for sports tournaments, many have benefitted from the heavy spending by streaming platforms.
Yet, India’s abundance of multilingual speakers and a nonchalant attitude toward subtitling have ensured that these benefits do not flow to translators due to undercutting.
Further, budget cuts due to a recessionary environment or the development of Youtube-like automated caption systems could spell trouble for India’s language service provider industry.
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