Quality, Creativity, Expertise – Some thoughts on the Iyuno-SDI White Paper on Subtitling

Written by Tiina Tuominen

A few months ago, Iyuno-SDI published a white paper  discussing the subtitling process and related considerations, such as the talent crunch, or shortage of competent subtitlers. Some audiovisual translators and translators’ organisations have published their responses (e.g. ATRAE, AVÜ and AVTE), particularly to the talent crunch issue. With this blog post, I want to share some of my thoughts on it, especially concerning subtitlers’ working conditions and the possible effects of working conditions on subtitle quality. I am writing this from my perspective as a researcher and former subtitler. I have no particular information on Iyuno-SDI’s internal processes. I have had many discussions with professional subtitlers in recent years, so I am aware of some industry practices from subtitlers’ point of view, but no insight into Iyuno’s operations in particular.

Creative freedom within a streamlined process?

The white paper states on page 3 that its intention is “to demystify the subtitling production process, and provide the reader with an accessible, abridged explanation of subtitling for global film and television productions.” It is indeed eye-opening to read how an LSP describes its work. I have been keen to learn more about how subtitling agencies operate, which is why I was pleased to see this publication. However, I would have loved to read even more details about the subtitling process, what LSPs expect of their translators, how decisions on norms and practices are made, and so on. For example, on page 4, the white paper discusses the “specification parameters” defined for each client. This brief reference to parameters does not demystify the process very much. The lack of specifics, such as what types of parameters are set, means that the reader cannot fully grasp the way specifications shape subtitlers’ work. Knowing more about them would help put the idea of the subtitler as an independent creative operative in a realistic context. How much creativity is a subtitler able to use, and is that creativity being curtailed by these specifications?

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

Another aspect of the subtitling workflow that may limit the subtitler’s decision-making is the use of security procedures mentioned on page 4:

“[W]e take the necessary security measures including visible spoiling of the video, watermarking and encryption according to our, and our customers’ requirements.”

I would have been curious to learn more about how decisions on these measures are taken. Is there any negotiation with clients to ensure that translators see enough of the visuals to make informed translation choices and, indeed, use their creativity to its fullest? Ideally, translators would be seen as professionals who are integral to the production process and who can be trusted with the material. Even if that is not fully the case, the final product would benefit from their creative needs being considered when determining security measures.

The subtitler’s creative options may also be affected by the use of template files. The creation of template files is described on page 4 as follows:

“Next, we schedule and assign the creation of the Master Template File (MTF), a timecoded transcription of the original audio (in the original language) in subtitle format. The MTF strictly adheres to the client’s specifications for reading speed, number of frames between subtitles, positioning on the screen and the like.”

This, too, is a rather brief description of a procedure that can be crucial to subtitle quality. As research has shown (e.g. this survey on the use of templates), templates can be problematic from the subtitler’s perspective. Language structures as well as local subtitling conventions are different, so identical timing and segmentation does not serve all locales equally well. The use of templates may thus limit translators’ creative freedom and decision-making, and overrule their local expertise. The white paper presents templates as an unproblematic and ubiquitous part of the subtitling process. While I understand why Iyuno would not want to critique their own practice, it would have been interesting to see some reasoning from the industry’s point of view about the calculations they make on using templates. Templates certainly increase efficiency and reduce costs, but the downside is in the risk to quality and translators’ job satisfaction, especially if the translator is not allowed to modify the template to better suit local requirements.

A big, happy family of collegial experts?

Even though the white paper gives rise to many questions about practices that may limit translators’ creativity and consequently reduce their job satisfaction, it does give credit to Iyuno’s translator pool. On page 4, the report mentions that “Iyuno-SDI has over 10,000 qualified translators in its network, each with specific skills and strengths.” On the following page, the report states that “the linguists play the pivotal and creative role” in the subtitling process. These comments portray translators as skilled professionals, rather than cogs in a large machine performing routine tasks. This is a positive signal, but somewhat in conflict with the descriptions of practices that may limit their creative potential and their input in how the process is designed. Are the translators truly being treated as creative experts, or is this praise an overstatement?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

These thoughts lead me to one of the biggest questions I had about this white paper. On page 6, Iyuno brands itself as a big, collegial family:

“The vast majority of our subtitlers have long, collaborative, and collegial working relationships with us, much like part of our extended family.”

Is that really how subtitlers experience their work? From everything I have heard about how translators work with large LSPs, the relationship is often not very collaborative. Freelance subtitlers can be quite distant from the LSPs they work for, and communication is limited. There are many aspects of the subtitling process that could benefit from using the subtitlers’ expertise and a constructive dialogue to enhance practices, but it seems that communication tends to be in one direction, with the LSP telling subtitlers how to do their work. In addition, one particular concern is how little contact subtitlers sometimes have with their colleagues, even others working for the same company. Genuine collaboration between companies and their subtitlers, as well as among subtitlers, could be useful for all. When timetables are tight, it may not be possible to discuss each project in detail, but the ability to keep in touch and exchange ideas could improve quality and keep subtitlers invested in their work.

Addressing the talent crunch

Finally, on page 8, Iyuno explains its perspective on the “talent crunch”, i.e., shortage of competent audiovisual translators while the amount of content to be translated is exploding.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

It is valuable to see how the industry discusses the situation and how it reacts to translators’ calls for better working conditions. The white paper points out that the reason for the shortage is the sharp increase in volumes. Iyuno thus places most of the blame on an unusual moment in history, rather than on problematic working conditions and low rates. They do concede that “every person that works for a living deserves the right to strive for better compensation, and the market will always settle at a market rate following the supply and demand principles that drive all commercial markets.” It is disappointing that they fall short of stating that translators deserve fair rates. Translators only deserve to “strive for” better, but at the end of all that striving, they still may not achieve the terms they are asking for. Iyuno claims that the market will determine the appropriate rates based on supply and demand. Why, then, do translators say that their rates are too low, even when there is exceptional demand for subtitling talent? Why are companies not competing for talent by raising rates and offering other incentives? I also wonder how the concentration of the subtitling business into a handful of large LSPs and a limited number of smaller competitors may affect the balance of supply and demand. Subtitling companies and subtitlers do not have equal negotiating positions, so the market does not balance itself naturally between these two parties. This is especially true because subtitlers tend to be freelancers, for whom it may be difficult to join forces and call for improved working conditions together.

Iyuno’s white paper also states the following:

“We have never seen a subtitler do a lesser job because they want more pay.”

Well, I have, and I think that makes perfect sense. Some translators make very rational decisions, determining that if they do not receive adequate compensation, they should spend less time on the work and thus do a lesser job by, for example, not checking or proofreading the subtitles, not putting as much effort into searching for correct terms, or not trying to come up with inventive wordplay or other solutions that take time and creative effort. I see this as a way to balance supply and demand: if the buyer pays poorly for a service, they can expect to receive poorer quality. Of course, this is not always the case. Many translators work hard to produce excellent quality even when the working conditions do not support it. That, too, is understandable, as it is difficult to reduce one’s standards. However, the LSPs cannot know which kind of translator they are working with, so quality becomes, if not poorer, at least less predictable. The only way to fix the issue would be to offer conditions under which it is reasonable to expect translators to produce top quality.

Finally, Iyuno makes the following statement about rates:

“Even if pay were to increase, it would not address the shortage in the short term since it takes time to recruit, test and train new translators.”

Yes, recruitment, testing and training take time, but there might be ways to reduce recruitment effort. Good working conditions could attract high-quality applicants who need less testing and training. What’s more, a good work environment could help retain existing translators, motivate them to dedicate more of their time to this work, and perhaps even get them to encourage their colleagues to apply for a job. Anecdotally, I know of former subtitlers who have left the business disillusioned or burnt out due to problematic working conditions. There are also many freelancers who have to supplement their low subtitling income with other work to make ends meet. If they earned more with subtitling work, they might spend a higher proportion of their work time on subtitling. So, I suspect that there is a significant amount of unused subtitling talent out there that could be put to more efficient use by making the work more attractive.

Final thoughts

Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

I am grateful to Iyuno for publishing this white paper. As my comments indicate, I wish it contained more details and more transparent discussion of the considerations LSPs have to balance, but this is a good start. Moving forward, I hope we can all seek solutions for a better subtitling industry together, by including all stakeholders in conversations about how the process could be developed, how the talent crunch could be addressed, and how optimal quality could be delivered to customers and ultimately the viewers. Despite Iyuno’s comments to the contrary, subtitlers often seem to be peripheral to decision-making. Their ability to do their work creatively and to a high standard is limited by some industry practices. Things could be better if their voice was heard more, and if their expertise was used to improve the way things are done. This would have the added benefit of engaging subtitlers in the subtitling process as a whole and allowing them to feel invested in the success of the company.




4 thoughts on “Quality, Creativity, Expertise – Some thoughts on the Iyuno-SDI White Paper on Subtitling”

  1. Thank you so much for this, Tiina! Let me just add one thing: My job satisfaction is also decreased considerably if the adaptation of the template is allowed, but not remunerated… In my 18 years of working as a freelance subtitler I’ve never received a template that I didn’t need to adapt for my target language (German). For that reason, I would argue that there should always be a certain amount of extra pay for template adaptation.

    • Thank you for the comment, Silke! I absolutely agree, subtitlers should not have to fix the templates for free (and if the quality is really bad, they should have the option to create the subtitles from scratch and be paid for it). The use of templates is a tricky practice in general, which is why it caught my attention in the white paper. Still, we probably will have to live with them, so it would be nice at least to be able to share these experiences with the companies and find the least bad ways to use templates.
      – Tiina

    • Hi Elisa!
      I’m not sure if it is freely available anywhere, but there is a form on the Iyuno website you can fill to request it. I hope they would send it to anyone who is interested.

      Best wishes,


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