The Netflix Subtitling Test Is Inadequate

Neflix logo with black-outlined letters against red background, "Netflix"

Netflix introduced a subtitling test called Hermes to vet potential vendors. Here's how it's inadequate and why not much is going to change.

  1. The announcement on the Netflix blog is rife with errors that need copy editing. That should be our first red flag.
  2. The comments following that post indicate that the test system itself is full of bugs; potential vendors ("Fulfillment Partners") can't access or proceed with parts of the text. (Ironically, one says the videos won't load.) Second red flag.
  3. The queries to Netflix from would-be test takers have not been replied to. Vendors might do well to take that as an indication of how they'd be treated if they were signed on to translate titles... While they invite contact via email, posting answers would be a more expeditious way of sharing info other folks would be needing.
  4. It refers to the importance of ensuring quality, but it contains writing not worthy of a communications professional. Aside from the errors mentioned above, there are scare quotes, which indicates to me that quality is not in fact ensured.
  5. It's copyrighted 2016 but was posted at the end of March 2017. This tells me that better meeting subscribers' viewing needs are not a priority, and that change in this area will be very slow.

I don't have a particular hate-on for Netflix: I'm sure most (S)VOD entities are streaming international shows with substandard subtitles. But it's the subscription I have and, as a professional, I can confidently report that the quality and consistency of title delivery is all over the map. (See a mini-gallery here of the hundreds of error examples I have on file.) They need subtitle editing, and they're going at it back-asswards. They could continue to use current vendors and have the files edited as tweaks. No need to re-invent the wheel. And that new wheel is going to raise your subscription price.

They're big on tech innovation (e.g. here), but if basic spelling and grammar errors prevent comprehension, it's sort of useless. Reminds me of the joke cartoon of the caveman who invented square wheels for his cart.

Here's an example. It's not huge, but it's telling. Netflix house style apparently allows for the use of "alright" in its subtitle translations. That spelling is recognized as a nonstandard alternate but is not the recommended or preferred spelling in Canadian, American or British dictionaries. If non-English shows and films are to be streamed in what is commonly called "world English" and usually defers to UK preferences, why are they condoning a second-choice, nonstandard—I'd go so far as to say colloquial or popular—spelling for a common idiom? Standard spellings and conventions are taught and used for good reason, and there is no contextual reason to use variations in most cases. It's sloppy, and it shows a disregard for viewers who use titles for many different reasons.

What bothers me about the providers and the regulation makers is that improvements to subtitles and captions are moving at a snail's pace. In Canada, a report issued in 2008 revealed useful—and at times poignant—data and commentary on the state of accessible telecommunications and, while much has been done on paper,

people with disabilities are still not treated with the respect (via access) that other Canadians enjoy.

From what I see in industry sources and reporting, it's not much better elsewhere.

And if you'd like to watch video programming made in other countries, you'd better resign yourself to subtitling that does not facilitate your immersion into the story. See my case for subtitle editing here.

Craptions is a lighthearted word, but the bureaucracies and corporate attitudes preventing us from having (long overdue) accessibility and seamless enjoyment of mainstream culture is no laughing matter.

If you have experiences with poor subtitles and captions, please share them in the comment section.

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