Why are Netflix's standards for Subtitles and Closed Captions so high?
This is because at Netflix, Subtitles and Closed Captions are Primary Assets.
Subtitles and closed captions have historically been deemed a secondary asset. Even our own technical specification lists subtitles and closed captions (timed text) among several types of secondary assets that NETFLIX requires. The reality is that for millions of our members around the world, timed text files are primary assets.
Timed text files are needed not only to translate foreign language dialogue, and provide the deaf and hard of hearing access to content, but also to allow one to watch content in a noisy environment. With the rapid growth of mobile devices, living rooms are no longer needed to enjoy your favorite film or television show. NETFLIX affords its members the ability to watch content on their own schedule, and subtitles allow members to enjoy content without the need for silence or headphones. Timed text files are paramount not only to the NETFLIX service, but also for the consumption of media in a world without the living room as the primary center of entertainment.
Accurate and natural translations are a critical element as Netflix continues to expand its global reach. What was once considered a box ticked in a long list of deliverables is now being held to a higher standard. We currently reject more files for poor translations than any other type of error. We often hear that the files delivered to NETFLIX should be accepted since they were the same used for broadcast or home video. Older standards often need to be updated as we continue to improve the film and television experience on multiple fronts. Translations that may have been deemed acceptable in the past may not measure up to the quality expected today.
Our members simply want an effortless experience, and this means that they will be able to read subtitles or closed captions without being reminded that they are reading. Awkward language pulls you out of the viewing experience instead of supporting the experience. Often, these errors are not egregious, but quite subtle in nature. We may reject a file for containing translations that are grammatically correct, but are simply phrases and colloquialisms that are not natural to the viewer. For example, if a character is saying the equivalent of, "let me refresh your memory" in a language other than English, the English translation should not be, "let me refresh your mind." This may have been a passable translation for other platforms and we can infer the intended meaning here, but it simply does not read naturally. People do not say, "let me refresh your mind" when reminding someone of a past memory. An error like this is rarely an isolated event, but rather an indication that the translation was not performed by someone with a native fluency in the translated language.
To provide a bit of insight into our process, when we QC an English subtitle for a Spanish language film, for example, we have a native English speaker with no Spanish knowledge watch a few minutes of the content. If they find examples that do not read naturally, the file is rejected. We expect this type of language check to be performed before an asset is delivered.
Another important aspect of the quality of the language is the ability to read the entire subtitle. In the past, little attention was paid to ensuring the reading speed was actually readable. We have put a considerable amount of thought and research into defining a natural reading speed in each of our language specific style guides. The translation quality is moot if the sentence flies by too fast to read.
Ultimately, we need to change the way we think about subtitles and closed captions. They are no longer secondary assets in a world where content knows no physical borders.