Streaming Babel

Curator's Note

Translating Stranger Things” showcases Netflix’s recent commitment to dubbing its “global originals” into different languages in order to make its content more accessible to subscribers in over 190 countries. Before presenting a scene which transitions from dialogue in English to clips of dubbed dialogue in nine different languages, the video announces in printed text, “When language isn’t a barrier…great stories have the power to travel the world.” Netflix promoted the global release of Stranger Things as a case study of its ability to market content across geographic and linguistic borders. According to data released by Netflix, the dubbed versions of the show were most popular in countries where dubbing is a central element of film and television viewing cultures, led by Italy where 84% of viewers watched the version dubbed in Italian. 

In addition to embracing dubbing as part of their localization strategy in markets such as Italy, Germany, and Spain, Netflix has also begun to produce English language dubs of Netflix shows originally filmed in other languages.  A recent Variety article revealed that Netflix now shows English dubbed versions of “foreign originals” as a default setting in the US. During interviews with Netflix, US subscribers expressed a preference for subtitling over dubbing, but Netflix launched an experiment to challenge this conclusion.  After streaming a dubbed version of the French show Marseilles to a group of US viewers, they learned that viewers who watched the dubbed version were more likely to watch the entire series. For Netflix, once again, data are destiny, overturning longstanding assumptions about viewer practices and tastes. 

The expansion of Netflix’s dubbing practices, documented for viewers after the closing credits of many Netflix shows when a long second credit sequence lists the voice actors for each dubbed language, raises questions about the future of translation in the era of streaming.  Netflix’s HERMES test enables the company to use algorithms to assess and index the work of translators who create subtitles in over twenty languages, but in many markets, including the US, dubbing may be what gives Netflix “the power to travel the world.”

Comments

Translation and Dubbing

Dear Lisa:

Thanks for such a generative post! While reading it, many things came to mind. I was curious about how Netflix went about deciding which of their ‘original’ shows would travel globally, and get dubbed in multiple languages. For a country like India which has multiple languages, how does Netflix decide which ones to dub in (and the implications of those choices)? Are the voice actors recognized names? Given that Netflix would have to hire writers, voice actors, sound technicians, and editors, this would be a more labor-intensive operation, and more expensive than subtitling. I wonder how much the script changes to accommodate and gesture to local idioms and cultural knowledge. It would interesting to find out how state, non-government, and/or industry-led media regulation impacts Netflix’s subtitling or dubbing practices.

Monika

Fan Yang's picture

Dubbing v. Fansubbing?

I, too, found Lisa’s post very thought-provoking! In addition to the important issues that Monika raised, such as how Netflix addresses a nation’s linguistic diversity, I am thinking about the effect of dubbing on the practices of amateur fansubbing and vice versa. In fact, the Chinese popularity of shows like House of Cards has much to do with the work of fansubbing communities. Sohu’s decision to purchase House of Cards was in part prompted by the enthusiasm already exhibited by its fans on illicit sites, who had not only provided quality translations of the dialogues but also offered numerous on-screen explanations of the US political system (see, for example, the screenshot on page 181 of http://www.jostrans.org/issue28/art_wang.pdf). While I’m hesitant to subscribe to a typical “fans v. the state” analysis of this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but wonder if this “pirate cosmopolitanism” (to borrow Jinying Li’ term) may be affected by, and/or serve to disrupt, Netflix’s controlled dubbing?

Dubbing vs. Subbing?

Fan, your comment about the impact of these practices on fan communities is an important one. Lisa and I have researched fan subbing practices on Viki. Here, subbing in a key way of engaging and creating (tiered) fan communities. For example,fan-subbers have access to shows prior to other fans. Viki also allows them to go beyond the boundaries set by geo-blocking so they can subtitle shows. In this case, fans do a lot of labor in circulating this shows. There is no monetary compensation for this labor besides getting ‘free’ access to shows. For both, Viki and DramaFever (which publicizes its ‘Professional Subtitles’), subbing also promotes their language pedagogy initiatives.

Monika

Fan Yang's picture

Re:

Thanks, Monika, for sharing this! As far as I know, language learning is also part of what motivates fansubbing in the Chinese context. In shows like House of Cards, there is also the aspect of transnational/English-speaking Chinese displaying their knowledge of American politics as a kind of cultural capital vis-à-vis domestic Chinese audiences. I’ve been curious for a while now whether this kind of practice calls for a more nuanced analysis beyond the “free labor” v. “creative resistance” dyad. Hope to hear more!

Language Learning

I think would be important think further about the role of language learning in generating or sedimenting fandom For example, DramaFever now supplies paratexts so you can learn favorite K-drama phrases or sentences. This is done to increase engagement, and affinity.

Fan Yang's picture

Language-learning fandom

This is super interesting, Monika! As someone who grew up learning a lot of English from watching Hollywood movies on Hong Kong TV (broadcast in Shenzhen), I would be really curious to see how this trend develops!

Jülide Etem's picture

How about ethics and laws about data collection?

This is a great post, Lisa! Thank you for bringing attention to dubbing of popular shows on Netflix. I also found the comments very useful to think about global streaming services in the contexts of both subtitling and fansubbing.

For a long time international television and film have had the power to travel the world because of dubbing, subtitling and fansubbing. This is not a new phenomena. However, Lisa’s post suggests that the use of algorithms by Netflix is the game changer in translation practices.

Global streaming services, like Netflix, also collect data from pirate sites for determining popular shows and moving globally. Please see: https://torrentfreak.com/netflix-uses-pirate-sites-to-determine-what-shows-to-buy-130914/

This post makes me further reflect on the ethics and laws about data collection practices by Netflix-like platforms. As media scholars, how do we frame and address legal and ethical issues that global streaming services create?

Jasmine Mitchell's picture

Politics of Dubbing

Thank you for this engaging post Lisa. This post illuminates global, local, and national repositioning of television. I was struck by the politics of dubbing and subtitles and I had a number of questions stemming from the post. The choosing of which dialects to represent languages and whole regions, such as “Latin American Spanish” seems potentially to open up regional asymmetries based on the predominance of particular national media industries. For example, is Mexican Spanish or Argentine Spanish pushed to the forefront and how do these generic dubbing choices instead of nationally specific ones influence the understanding of the media text? How important might accent be to the media text and to the sense of belonging to a media community? Furthermore, how are identity backgrounds transmitted and circulated, especially identities that are often marginalized in particular locales? Both linguistic and vocal performances potentially obscure or exaggerate these identities. Another key component is the viewer reception to these dubbing techniques.

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