Lights! Camera! Translate! | Crooked Media
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November 29, 2022
Lights! Camera! Translate!

In This Episode

Subtitles, AI translation

From “Seinfeld” to “Squid Game”, thanks to streaming, audiences worldwide have access to more TV shows and movies from other countries than ever before, and that includes content from foreign countries. As such, the localization industry is booming, and the nature of subtitling, dubbing, and captioning is rapidly changing and expanding. We dive into the distinct processes and challenges regarding localization, and how they affect what we see on screen.





Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s Thursday night. The year is 1995.  On the massive box TV in my childhood home, Seinfeld is airing in the typical time slot, must see TV. There is no DVR or streaming. You plop down in front of the TV, and watch your favorite TV show when it airs. What a concept. No rewinds. 


[clip of George Costanza]: Hey, sorry to bother you so late. Hey how you doing? [laughter] Did you get any of those sponges?


Ahmed Ali Akbar: In the episode that’s airing, The Sponge, George Costanza is having a minor crisis. As always. He’s especially worked up about the fact that he might miss some makeup sex. 


[clip of George Costanza]: Let me explain something to you here. This is not just the weekend routine. I’m on the verge of makeup sex here. [laughter] You know makeup sex Elaine?


[clip of Elaine Benes]: Oh yeah, George I know all about makeup sex and I’m really sorry. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Meanwhile, over in Norway, the episode airs sometime later, and I imagine audience members standing up from the couch and saying wait a minute. What was that phrase George used? Because makeup sex got a very quirky Norwegian translation. 


Rafael Motomayer: Makeup sex, got translated literally as the word for makeup. As in, beauty products. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Rafael Motomayer is a journalist who reports on TV and Film translation. 


Rafael Motomayer: And the word they used was sminkesex, which is again literally mean like fashion makeup sex, sminke meaning makeup, just the actual word for makeup.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: And this wasn’t just a one-off mistake. 


Rafael Motomayer: It just never got corrected on TV. They just kept running with it because it was just too late. They already had a bunch of episodes with that translation, so they just kept it and people grew up watching that and started using in their normal day to day life.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: To this day, some people in Norway say sminkesex to refer to makeup sex, even though they know it’s a mistranslation. That’s how culturally impactful film and tv translations can be. Man, I love that story. I feel for the translators though. If you think about it at the time, it’s not like they could just look up the correct translation on the internet. It was the 90s. At the time, there were a lot less TV shows than there are now. And nothing was on demand the way it is today. And translations were hard to come by. You might be lucky to find dubbed or subtitled versions of the biggest hits, but it was spotty. Now, things have completely changed, you’ve got an explosion of new TV shows dropping in massive amounts on Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Discovery, the list goes on. And you can watch many of your favorite shows in a variety of different languages subtitled, dubbed, or in closed captions. All that demand for more, more, more is great. It means people are enjoying and absorbing creative work from cultures all over the world. But imagine what that means for translators. They’ve weathered so much industry change while getting more and more work and less time to do an already difficult job. 


Rafael Motomayer: So there’s, uh, things that are bound to be lost in translation. And at the same time that. It’s happening because people are actually watching things that they never did before. So it’s kind of a double edge sword.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Today we’re exploring the wonderful world of film and TV localization and how these translations affect our experience as viewers. Even when we don’t notice them. From Crooked Media and Duolingo, I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. Today’s episode. Lights. Camera. Translate. So before we dive in, let’s get a handle on a few definitions. Localization is the term now used for adapting a TV show or film for a different country. And it goes so far beyond just translation. It can be broken down into three separate processes. Subtitling, dubbing, and closed captioning. I know, I sort of clumped all three in my head as well, but Rafael explained to me that these are each a unique piece of the localization pie.


Rafael Motomayer: Subtitling is essentially the text that you see on screen whenever you watch a title in a foreign language. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Most of us are familiar with this. But what’s important about subtitling is that it essentially translates a foreign film into a script written in your language. The translation is the best approximation of what was said in the original. There’s no such thing as a perfect translation. Dubbing requires a new script too, but it also requires an additional process, besides localizing a script.


Rafael Motomayer: Which is getting actors in another language to rerecord every piece of dialogue, every line of dialogue, uh, to that local language.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: And because they want the new voices to somewhat match the mouth movements of what’s going on onscreen, the dubbing script might look very different from a subtitling script for the same film. So the dubbing process is a totally separate beast that the subtitling process. And then, there’s closed captioning. 


Rafael Motomayer: Closed captioning is, is the third sort of branch of localization that’s used mostly for hard of hearing people and it includes lines of dialogue, but it also includes, uh, sound effects and even music. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Closed captioning on a film or TV show looks like subtitles, but with more information. Stranger Things Season 4 had some really evocative ones, like ominous synth music plays and tentacles slither wetly, which really paints a picture for folks who can’t hear how scary those monsters are. Because of this, and because of certain FCC guidelines, the closed captions follow the dubbing script, as opposed to the subtitling script. So one film’s subtitles could potentially look quite different than the same film’s closed captions. You can already see how complicated it all is. When Rafael wrote his first article about localization for the entertainment website, Vulture, he was relatively naive as well. He had no idea what the process of translating a film looked like or even how many translations certain streamers provided, and so that’s what he set out to do, explain to readers what this all looks like. But when he approached different distribution companies like Netflix and Hulu and whatnot, it was hard to get answers. There’s really no standard policy.


Rafael Motomayer: Quite a lot of the companies don’t really, uh, know. The number of, of titles that they have with subtitles. So just wide varies from title to title, to, for language to language, it was quite hard to get an answer for it.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: When Rafael says titles, he means movies and TV shows. There are so many movies and shows translated in so many different languages that some companies weren’t really keeping track. 


Rafael Motomayer: Every company does things differently. Every company has different standards or things that they want to focus on. Uh, whether that’s formatting, like how many characters you can have on screen at any given second to, what words they want translated or localized. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: For example, different companies may require different font sizes for subtitles, which affects the number of words you can have on screen at any given moment.


Rafael Motomayer: So if you have, that limitation, that means that you have to summarize what the, the, the original line of dialogue is saying. So that’s when you go into issues of what do you cut out? There’s bound to be some context that you miss  otherwise the subtitle takes too much space away from the screen.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: But if the translated summary of the original material isn’t quite right, then that can change the actual narrative of the show. This particular issue came to a head in 2021, when the Korean show Squid Game exploded in the US and all over the world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, it’s about a brutal game show that exploits class differences and poverty. It’s a distinctly Korean story, but it spoke to the struggle of everyday people everywhere. And almost immediately viewers fluent in Korean started criticizing the quality of the English subtitles, dubs, and closed captioning. One translation in particular missed some important nuances of the original. One character Han Mi-nyeo, she’s like the chaotic auntie character played by Kim Joo-ryoung, was overly simplified in the translation.


Rafael Motomayer: The big mistake with Squid Game was, one character who said that she never bothered to study, but she she’s smart, uh, mean that she. Is not formally educated because she didn’t want to. She just, uh, she has street smarts kind of, but the original, uh, Korean says something about the lines of, I am very smart. I just never, gonna, never got a chance to be educated.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: She’s pleading with other characters not to underestimate her because of her class and lack of formal education.


Rafael Motomayer: Which was closer to the show’s theme of, class and inequality and these sort of social commentary that made the show popular in addition to just a bunch of death games. So, in the original line cemented those ideas whereas the English translation just completely changed the, the arc for that character and made her lazy rather than just devoid of opportunity. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar:  It’s a small change, but illustrates the compromises translators have to make all the time. It made me curious about the flip side. What about when English films are released on streaming and need to be translated to a huge global audience? So I reached out to a screenwriter friend of mine. Did you ever have this feeling like, oh this is going to be translated into other languages. Like did you ever think about that when you were writing it?


Kirsten King: You know, it’s so funny. I didn’t at all. [laugh] Like I did not at all, which is very naive. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar:  This is Kirsten King, calling us from Los Angeles. Hollywood baby. She and her cowriter Casey Rackham recently wrote a movie called Crush for Hulu. In the before times, I mean before streaming, it was primarily major films and a few really popular network TV shows that were being localized in other countries. But Kirsten and Casey are both relatively new filmmakers, fresh faces. And it’s incredible to think about their film being translated into different languages and being seen all over the world. It was a new experience for her. 


Kirsten King: I think I honestly assumed that it would be translated by a computer and like put on, I didn’t know that this was, people’s like a person’s job, which of course it is because you know, that translator has to like, think about the heart of the scene and try and translate it. And a computer cannot do that as well. I’m sure.


Ahmed Ali Akbar:  Crush is a coming-of-age romcom about a love triangle between three high school girls, Paige, Gabriella, and AJ. It’s a queer love story that takes place in a quintessentially American film setting, a high school. Queer storylines in American movies have been banned in some international markets. And Kirsten and Casey wrote it in a way where Queerness was the center. You can’t translate around it.


Kirsten King: Casey and I took a lot of care in terms of the language we chose, because I think for queer people, the language you choose is incredibly important to respecting their identity and who they are as a person, um, and really respecting their humanity. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: When the movie came out, the response was great. And Kirsten and Casey were really happy with all the queer fan love Crush received.


Kirsten King: I can go on Tumblr and like see all these gifts of our leads kissing, and it’s just, it’s very cute. It’s everything we wanted it to be.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: But like she mentioned, this was her first time writing something for a global audience. She hadn’t thought about how the film had been translated until I reached out. And that got her thinking about how all the very specific language they chose when writing the film got translated. One example is her and Casey’s use of the word queer. 


Kirsten King: We use it somewhat interchangeably if they also identify as gay or if they also identify as bisexual. That word queer, it is intentional because I do think it. Includes a larger umbrella of, of people. It includes a larger umbrella of gender presentations. I think that queer is just, it’s a larger umbrella term that Casey and I chose because. One is how we both identify. And two, it feels more accurate to the characters we wanted to portray. So, so knowing that the translation in other countries could be just gay or just bisexual, um, and not have not have a word that matches queer in that reclaimed way. That kind of worries me a little bit, honestly.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s a choice that the writers felt made the story more authentic. Queer also has a unique history in American English, it used to be a pretty derogatory term, but it has been reclaimed. That nuance might not easily translate. So she and I decided to do a little digging into the translations. I asked her to pick a scene. 


Kirsten King: Well, I looked up one scene where I know they say queer, cuz I know this movie I’ve seen it like 14 times now. 


[clip of film]: No, no, no, no, no, no. There are plenty of other queer options for you to date at the school. Please.


Kirsten King: Dylan, the best friend character says there are plenty of, of other queer options for you in this school. And queer is used intentionally there because we’re walking down the hallway and we’re talking about the umbrella of identity.


[clip of film]: What about Chantelle? She’s like a cool wicken lesbian. 


Kirsten King: we’re talking about. you know, lesbians, we’re talking about gender queer people. 


[clip of film]: What about Moriah? / No way dude, I definitely don’t have enough followers to date them. 


Kirsten King: We’re just talking about gay people. So, um, but it is translated to say gay. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: When Kirsten and I pulled up the scene, we noticed that Hulu doesn’t offer a dub, only Spanish subtitles. And the line was translated to say gay instead of queer, which in Spanish, is cuir. It took a lot more digging to find the dubbed version, and I eventually figured out that it can only be found on Disney Plus in international markets. But in order to access the other translations, I had to use a VPN, Virtual Private Network, and stream it from an internet address in Spain. Then things got way more complicated than I expected. There are actually two types of Spanish represented, European Spanish, and Latin American Spanish. Each one has different voice actors and different scripts, and each of those dubs is different from Hulu’s Spanish Subtitles where Queer was translated as gay. In Spain’s dub, they actually do translate queer as cuir. But what’s strange is the subtitles don’t reflect the dub. Instead they say LGBT. No Q. In the Latin American dub, Queer is translated as lesbicas, lesbian. And the subtitles are different that are too. They drop the adjective and just say opciones. So by my count, there are actually five different translations that I know of for the Spanish version of Crush.


Kirsten King: It does bum me out because I do think that all that care, cuz Casey and I had so many conversations about identity while writing this, like we probably had more conversations on identity and their star signs than we did anything else. So. You know, knowing that, that isn’t, isn’t being reflected a hundred percent how we imagined it is weird. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: I watch a lot of TV that has cultural specificity. Shows like Ramy Jane, the Virgin and Insecure. The cultural specificity is one of those things that makes those shows so good. It’s a translator’s job to do justice to the original work and knowledge about cultural contexts. Not just language and grammar is essential when knowing how to localize something. It’s a tough job. Just think about all the challenges we’ve talked about so far. You need someone with a very particular set of skills multilingual, smart, unbelievably fast. Someone who’s got the guts to bend the rules occasionally to translate something while keeping the soul the original script in mind. That’s the job. You need super translator. It’s always going to be hard to find enough people like this. And right now it’s especially challenging. 


Rafael Motomayer: With globalization and, and with people being way more open to international titles now than they ever were before. There’s more demand to bring those titles to audiences that are now hungry for those. And so that means that there’s not enough translators that specialize in subtitling and dubbing to meet the demand.


Ahmed Ali Akbar:  So all that demand falls on a small group of highly skilled people, and we’re going to meet one of them, after the break.




Andrea Rainu: You have to work very fast and uh, very well.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Andrea Rainu. She’s the Vice President of Global Subtitling at Iyuno-SDI, a localization company based in Los Angeles. 


Andrea Rainu: If you had like a month to translate 45 minutes and that would be the only thing that you did probably that would be the perfect translation, but usually you only have nine to 10 hours to do it or something like that. Especially nowadays, everything is just like in my company, we’re turning around, uh, shows in eight hours. Which is crazy.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Andrea has been in the industry for over 20 years. She’s fluent in English, French and Romanian. And she is well versed in the difficult job film translators take on. 


Andrea Rainu: If the, if the language is a big language, then you would have only one person responsible of that language. And. Of all the translations of all the shows of everything that you do for that, uh, for that language, if the language is like a smaller in volume, then you would have somebody overseeing maybe two or three languages, let’s say the Baltic languages, that would be a person that oversees two or three languages.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: One person to manage two or three languages is a lot of responsibility. 


Andrea Rainu: And these people have to ensure that everything is done absolutely perfectly. I mean, that’s the, uh, it’s very aspirational, but that’s the goal, you know.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: And the protocols they have to follow, my god, the protocols.


Andrea Rainu: The rules that you have to follow for each client. Do you put a space before a question mark in some languages you do in some languages you don’t, is there a space before the ellipses? What kind of ellipses are you using? uh, let’s see what else? How do you treat songs? Are you going to subtitle songs in that language or not? Assuming that you do subtitle the songs— [overlapping questions]


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Andrea can tell you how a film or show gets translated from soup to nuts. The first step? Often, it’s creating what is called a pivot script. Pivot scripts first translate a film from any foreign language, Spanish, Korean, Hindi, you name it into a common language, which in many cases means English. This English script, rather than the original, then serves as a reference for other foreign language translators when they localize it into their own language. This kinda makes me think of a game of telephone surely it can result in some mistranslation. And Andrea says it is a controversial process. 


Andrea Rainu: People tend to, uh, believe that maybe they’re right to a certain extent that, oh, this is going. Be not good because you’re translating from Spanish to, um, English and then something is lost in that translation. And then you translate from English to Korean and a lot of it even more is going to be lost. That’s more or less true, but at the same time, it’s impossible to find a large pool of translators who can localize hundreds and hundreds of hours in all these language combinations.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s not easy to find people who fluently speak say, both Mandarin and Portuguese, or both Russian and Korean who want this job, and can match the demanding parameters of the studios. So pivot scripts to English are more useful to a wider range of translators, which then helps films be translated more efficiently, and more widely. You might be wondering, why can’t we just have a computer do the translation? The short answer is, computers just not smart enough, yet. You need a person who is creative and a good problem solver. Take this example from Season 6 of Game of Thrones. FYI, If you haven’t watched the show, I’m about to spoil something for you. But also, you’re like ten years behind so that’s on you frankly. In the very first season of Game of Thrones, there was this character, Hodor. He’s a very tall man who only says his name, Hodor. Hodor. With a smile on his face. In season 6 we finally learn that this gentle giant’s name means something. Through a complex flash forward sequence thing that I’m not gonna get into, we find out that Hodor is short for the phrase, hold the door. If you’ve seen the show, you were probably hit with this oh my god moment. Justice for Hodor. But for translators? Rafael Motomayor told me it was a huge challenge.


Rafael Motomayer: Translators around the world started to panic because they now had to figure out what Hodor means in their own languages.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: For five seasons, translators had a straightforward situation where there was a character named Hodor. It was his name. Hodor spent seasons just Hodoring in the background. But now, all of a sudden, they had to make the word Hodor mean something close to the English phrase, hold the door, but translated into their own language? A near impossible task. A computer could never. The result?


Rafael Motomayer: Some of them sound okay and it kind of makes sense. Some of them really found contrive ways to work around it, to kind of make it sound similar, but not perfect. In Turkish, the phrase that was used means stay there.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s orada dur, meaning hold there. 


Rafael Motomayer: and in French, uh, again, a rather short and simple sentence, hold the door becomes, don’t let them get outside.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s, excuse my French— [speaks french]


Rafael Motomayer: Which just becomes too long. And there’s not really a way that it shortens down to Hodor. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So depending on the language you’re watching, Hodor’s name could take on a whole new meaning that wasn’t necessarily intended by the filmmakers. Thinking about this Hodor situation, I imagine there are many, many more like it.  It’s clear that no matter what, something is compromised when localizing a foreign film, it’s just a part of the process. Solving the Hodor name thing required a certain level of nuance and out of the box thinking on the part of the translators.


Andrea Rainu: They have, uh, all the, all the freedom to do whatever they think that’s necessary to just express it in the best possible way. 


Ahmed Ali Akbar: There are some committees and some oversight on this. The translators do their pass on the script, and then they go to a Quality Control specialist who checks for all kinds of errors. Quality Control may clean up and catch errors, but generally the translators are trusted to make the best adjustments possible. And many times, it works out great.


Andrea Rainu: I’m thinking now of an example, which I thought was a brilliant, uh, translation in pulp fiction.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Pulp Fiction, the Quentin Tarantino movie starring Uma Thurman, amongst others.


Andrea Rainu: There’s that joke that, um, about, about Uma Thurman is telling with, uh, um, how did it go with the tomatoes, the mama tomato, the papa tomato and the mama tomato that they’re walking and, uh, the baby tomatoes falls behind and they say, uh, catch up. And, uh, this is, I mean, that’s very difficult to, to, to translate in any language. And I saw the French translation, which was, uh, the mama lemon and the papa lemon and the mama lemon were walking because she was saying that joke, you wouldn’t see it. She was just like saying it. And then the baby, uh, the Papa lemon to the baby, pressé toi, because presse-citron it means like, uh, a lemonade, you know, so instead of catch up, it was pressé toi.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Presse-citron means lemonade. And pressé toi means hurry up. Which is a great translation right? A relatively harmless change, that was probably super satisfying to the French speaking audience. As you can imagine though, humor is especially hard to translate. Here’s Rafael again.


Rafael Motomayer: Comedies have such a hard job in terms of translating jokes from one language to the other that, uh, sometimes what, uh, the translators for the dubbed version do just change a bunch of the jokes to something that is funnier in their own language. So I make the example of, um, the Shrek movies, which in Spanish, essentially toss aside every single joke of the original script and just make them from scratch. And the result is completely different. And in my opinion, because I grew up watching those, a funnier experience.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So it’s not unusual to make big changes like this when localizing a film. The translators are trying to make the experience enjoyable to a new audience in a different country, and sometimes that requires more than just a 1 to 1 translation. I have a perfect example. For years, many of my Arab told me about this cartoon they grew up with, Captain Majid. [Captain Majid Arabic theme song plays] But every single friend I spoke to said they believed, their entire childhood, that this was an Arabic cartoon, with an Arabic soccer star leading an Arab team to victory. It was their favorite show. But Captain Majid was not an Arab show.  The original was a Japanese anime called Captain Tsubasa. [Captain Tsubasa theme song plays] The dubbers took it upon themselves to change the locations and names to be familiar to Arabic speakers. They did such a good job that their work was invisible to the Arabic speaking kids who grew up watching it and they believed it was made for them alone. This Captain Majid example shows how there could be something generative to this process of localization. A translated cultural object could take on a life of its own and become meaningful to a whole new audience. Think back to the movie Shrek and its Spanish dubs, or in a small way, Seinfeld’s Norwegian translation of makeup sex. So after learning all this, how can you not appreciate the translators? Even with all that work to be done in a short time, the small pool of qualified professionals and limitations that cannot be subverted. Translators are still very good at their jobs. Obviously, they are getting a lot right because the fans are so passionate and amazingly cross-cultural. In my research for the story, I came upon the most incredible fandoms. Nigerian Bollywood festivals, Latin American anime concerts in Spanish and Japanese, South Asian fans fervently commenting on Turkish drama star’s Instagram pages. And who can forget about the United Nations of Korean drama fans? The reality is, TV and film aren’t slowing down any time soon. In the meantime, the localization industry is busy making lemons into lemonade, or at least, trying to ketchup.  


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media. I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Mary Knpof and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our associate producer and fact checker is Brian Semel. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.