Rohan Dhar

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How OTT giants are changing the way translators are perceived

When professional translators tell new acquaintances, distant relatives, nosy local “uncles”, or other unsuspecting souls what they do for a living, they’re typically met with a confused look that borders on worry. It’s an expressive enough look that you can almost hear the thoughts behind it: “Am I losing my mind? Can you even do that for a living? It doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone pay you for something so simple? Sounds absurd. I used three languages today before the morning newspaper had even hit the coffee table. What’s the big deal?”

Such reactions only bother rookie translators. Those who’ve been in the game a long time remain unfazed: they’re used to this and more, ranging from “Translation’s something that even I could easily do” to “That’s a nice hobby, but what’s your real job?”.

Why is it that translators (and their much rarer cousins, interpreters) get so little respect? There are several reasons for this. For one thing, laypeople have absolutely no idea that CAT tools exist, and that documents in several important domains need to be translated on a routine basis. Thus, they know neither how translators work, nor what they work on. Moreover, many people these days seem to believe that machine translation is a solved problem. Thus, they can’t understand why translators even exist any more. 

Lastly, and this is especially pertinent to the Indian context, many people assume that being multilingual should automatically make you a decent translator. From the perspective of these people, literally every person who’s at a C1 level in French and attended an English-medium school is effectively already a latent translator (and not just from French to English, but the other way around as well!). As a result, so-called professional translators hardly seem special in any way.

How OTT platforms are helping translators get an image makeover

These perceptions of what translation involves might be slowly changing for the better thanks to major OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. How so, you ask? Well, the main reason is that over the past several years, such platforms have been bringing an ever-increasing number of people in contact with translations, in the form of subtitles. 

Before the advent of such platforms, it was quite rare for a layperson to watch movies or shows in which the characters spoke one language and the subtitles used another. But given the glut of well-received non-English-language content on such platforms, it’s now become quite common for people to watch foreign-language or even Indian-language content with English subtitles.

This change in behaviour has raised the profile of translators in two interrelated ways:

  1. All around the world, people have begun having discussions and expressing their opinions about the quality of the subtitles on OTT platforms. For instance, the subtitles of Netflix’s global hit ‘Squid Game’ were subjected to a fair amount of (mostly unwarranted, as far as I can tell) criticism on social media, which was then met with several rebuttals pointing out the constellation of constraints translators must operate under in such scenarios. As a result, many viewers are beginning to realise that what they’d assumed to be a fairly trivial operation comes with many complexities they’d been blissfully unaware of.
  1. In the Indian context, a fair number of people watch movies and shows with the English subtitles on, even if the original language is an Indian language that they understand (admittedly, this is an extrapolation based on a rather small sample size, but hopefully it gels well with your experience as well). When doing so, it’s almost impossible to not be constantly hit hard by the realisation ‘I wouldn’t have translated it like that; in fact, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to translate it at all’.

In other words, OTT subtitles can bring home the fact that mere fluency in two languages isn’t enough to translate well: you need something more (study? experience? creativity? all of the above?). It’s not hard to see how such an experience could change someone’s perception of translators and the work they do.

How things should pan out

As OTT platforms continue to reach new viewers around the world, they’re likely to keep bringing about such mental shifts in more and more people. The limited screen space and time available for subtitles, cultural references, context, and just the sheer multiplicity of ways in which any given word, phrase, and sentence can be translated, are all factors that should continue to motivate spirited discussions and debates. It sure seems like the limelight is slowly turning towards translators and the crazy amount of inter-cultural heavy lifting they’re responsible for. 

One thing we can definitely be sure of, though, is that with every passing day, we’re going to hear more people go, “Man, that was great; the translators on this show sure did a bang-up job!”. And ultimately, that’s exactly how translators can chip away at the apathy they face: one heart and one mind at a time.