Read the background and objections here, then delve in to my POV.
Please note I’ve used quotation marks rather than italicizing words as words (in captions/subtitles) with the aim of making a more accessible document.
Spoiler alert: you aren’t going to learn a language with the “Language Learning with Netflix” browser extension. You may confirm what you know, learn the odd word, or see something spelled that you’d only heard before, but you aren’t going to learn a language.
Now, I’m a language nerd, so I’m not knocking different modes of language acquisition or people’s desire to expand their worldview or personal skills. But to get viewers’ hopes up by presenting this tool thus is like saying you’ll learn to be a chef by working as a cashier at McDonald’s. You’ll learn stuff, it may be fun—it may even be “cool” as the linked article says—but you won’t be able to converse in the original language of the show. Especially based on most of the subtitles.
There are indeed some very cool functionalities to this tool. You can choose to see the automatic voice recognition–software’s subtitle translation or the human translation or both. Most useful is the ability to set the automatic pause on each text box. Unfortunately, the two versions of subtitles are so poorly handled that there’s no way in Hades you could learn much language from them.
I experimented with a film and language I was familiar with: “Incendies” by director Denis Villeneuve (2010) in French—Québécois to be exact, which is no mean feat for a French-from-France-translator to tackle. (I know because I went to translation school and, being in Canada, we dealt with Québécois French as much as European French.) (And sidebar, it’s a difficult film to watch but excellent. I recommend it.) I chose to watch both the “machine” translations (as Netflix calls the autocraptions) and the “human” translations simultaneously. In the following examples, when all three languages are shown, the original French is on top, machine in the middle, and human on the bottom. The Arabic is not subtitled. And by the way, I could have selected a film in any of the languages I know and found similar issues; this is just an illustration.
Let’s look at some examples.
“J’ai la crisse de paix” is not about “the crease of peace” or even, dictionary-wise, “the crisis of peace”: it’s swearing with “Christ” and colloquially would be used as in the human subtitled “I feel so fucking peaceful.” So, that part is good! If it were France, it would likely have been some form of “putain,” but it looks like the translator asked someone who was familiar with swearing as you’d find it in Quebec or perhaps Maritime Canada (because as we’ll see below, the rest of the translation is problematic). But how did a machine supposedly translate “la crisse” to “the crease” if they’re using a corpus dictionary? Autocraptions 0, #NoMoreCraptions 1.
“Haleter” means “to pant,” “gasp,” or “puff” in French, but for the moment, let’s look at the autocraption “(Breathless breath)” which a human has not chosen to correct. That’s somewhat of a grammatical nullification in English, never mind a contradiction in meaning. In this scene, the young man is upset, stressed. A good subtitle would have replaced the machine one with something like “(sighs with stress)” or “(anxiously sighs).” This subtitle is used many times in the film, unfortunately.
Here the doctor is taking a history of the woman and asking her children questions about her health and behaviour of late. The machine subtitle is typically autogenerated: it just translated the line literally. The subtitler is just wrong. “Absente” and “désorientée” or “confuse” wouldn’t be synonymous here. In fact, here’s an argument for giving captioners and subtitlers reasonable work timelines instead of ridiculous demands of urgency. Had the subtitler watched the film first, they would have known that the woman has PTSD, which is unknown to her children, so her son just finds her emotionally unavailable and is very hurt and angry about that. Therefore, the subtitle must be “She’s always absent”: the English audience would understand that it doesn’t mean just physically but more so emotionally; the always would be more colloquial than “usually,” and it would be understood as “[not literally] always” but “[pretty much] always.” So if someone went to a French class and used what they’d learned here and said to the teacher, “Je suis absente” to indicate they needed further help, they’d be laughed at. Not what you want when learning a language.
Here the “You’re kidding right?” is a hangover from the previous shot/subtitle and shouldn’t even be included again. But the young woman is being asked about something from thirty-five years ago and predictably responds with the French line as shown. The machine version is literally correct but not idiomatically. The human translation is incomplete and misses the mark, thus leaving the viewer in the dark. “I wasn’t born” is not the same as a snarky “I wasn’t even born yet” or “I wasn’t even alive then.” So let’s imagine someone (for some reason) wanted to learn how to say “I wasn’t born” in French: they would use a totally incorrect/inappropriate construction, confusing their listener. Part of learning a language is about clarity, so that there is no miscommunication.
The translation by machine apparently went for an aural equivalent here; a human should have changed this to “(cries of little girl).” Unfortunately, this one is doubly problematic in Canada: “Cree” is the name of the Algonquian language of the indigenous Cree people. Confusion could reign supreme here, especially in a film so much about culture and place. Furthermore, knowing it was a Canadian film, viewers might see the subtitle briefly, wonder at it, and then lose track after it has passed by but still be pondering the meaning: audience immersion down the toilet. It certainly would detract from the cultural aspect of learning French.
This is a good example of the need to understand diction and register in audiovisual translation. “Stridulations” can mean “chirps,” “chirring,” or “shrill sounds.” It refers to the sound crickets and other insects make by rubbing their legs, wings, etc. together. In English, “stridulations” would only be used within a scientific context, perhaps even only an academic one. Here, it’s just about the countryside setting, and we would say “(insects chirring)”—if at all. There’s an argument that the caption is not even necessary as it doesn’t advance the plot: we can see it’s empty and remote. In any event, a language student who then said on a beautiful summer night in Provence, “Oh listen to the stridulations of insects!” would be looked at like they had three heads…or too big a head. Subtitling and captioning is not about dictionary and thesaurus use. The audiovisual translator has to understand meaning, context, and changes in the target language. For the record, I don’t believe the audio has insects: I think it’s birds and the wind.
The machine definitely blew this one with its literal translation. This is a key thematic and character-relevant phrase and is even a chapter title in the film. The human was closer but the “Number 72” is repeated in the next subtitle. Also, there is no understanding of capitalization conventions: as an epithet and important theme, “the Woman Who Sings” needs a capital on “who” in headline style; here it’s a mixture of headline and sentence. Probably the subtitler is working under the misapprehension that “little words” don’t get capitalized, a rule from the dinosaur age. All caps on the phrase would forewarn a language learner that this is not everyday usage.
Here, “Inspiration” (and elsewhere “(Grande respiration)” as “(Great breath)”) is a total craption. Inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit or a muse or a lightbulb above your head, but its Latin root about breathing cannot be applied here. Furthermore, it’s hardly a notable or significant inhalation (unlike an example below) and could have been omitted. I don’t understand how a professional translator or QC person could have stetted this machine error.
The errors in these subtitles are obvious in that the chapter title denies access to the viewer of the other subtitles if using the human version. “La Femme Qui Chante” should have been made a forced narrative, and the correct translations of the audio should have been “(man speaking over PA system)” and “(birds chirping),” despite the latter being insignificant. Most importantly, during the top shot, the young woman is sobbing (plot pertinent!) and that absolutely should be captioned, with the PA part placed on the next shot where that audio continues. No one’s learning any language here.
As far as I know, Arab culture doesn’t espouse women’s lib, so the machine “Ms.” is a cultural #SubtitleFail. Then, it seems the translator is used to British conventions because in North America we use a period after “Mrs.” and the surname is misspelled. In any case, these inconsistencies would be confusing to a language learner without the knowledge of these cultural points.
Here the nurse is interpreting from the patient’s Arabic. “Safeguarded” is the wrong diction for this scene: it’s too formal and, in terms of babies, is a bit archaic. For the newborns, who are essentially refugees, “took in” is an appropriate choice. A student using this would sound like they were talking about a report by a board of governors rather than caring for little ones.
No spoilers, but here is another misrepresentation of “(Inspiration).” This is a gut-wrenching gasp of horror at the first of two climaxes in the film…
The problems with these three subsequent subtitles are obvious. Again, they take the viewer out of the narrative, disrupting their immersion in the poignant dénouement of the story, and teaching nothing about language.
These are just a few examples to illustrate how the notion of teaching a language is far more complex than throwing up some setting options and calling it language learning.
Yes, it’s great if you know some, say, Polish and want to check what a character said, or if you need to pause the subtitles for better comprehension. But to suggest that language lessons are being made available by a streaming service that is known for its problematic subtitles and its craptions is misleading. It’s just another way Netflix holds a monopoly on the international offerings of video-on-demand but is putting the cart way before the horse. They need to get serious about native target-language speakers as subtitle and caption editors and fix the timed text before they start misinforming the public about foreign languages. For now, I’d recommend using some language-learning software or apps, or—much better—taking accredited classes in the language you want to learn. You can’t learn how to drive an eighteen-wheeler on the highway by trying out a Segway.