Lost in Translation with Netflix Subtitler, Siti Salmi

oleh | Des 13, 2021 | Feature | 0 Komentar

I’m going to let Salmi talk now.

Please introduce yourself, tell us where you are, what your favorite food is, whatever you want to say. Go ahead.

Okay. Hi, everyone. I’ll try to speak Malay plus Indonesian a bit, okay. Yeah. I worked a bit in office and then I realized, “Oh, freelancing is my thing. So, yeah, I became a freelance translator. I am now a Netflix linguist who works as a subtitler, quality checker, and quality assurance linguist.

Do you like movies? Do you have a passion [in movies]?

I’m a graduate of University of Nottingham Malaysia in Film and Television Studies. One of my professors, Thomas Barker—I don’t know if you guys know him—he’s also a bit like an Indonesian film expert. He’s the one who connected me to Iskandar in Wordsmith Group.

It’s nice to hear that you actually studied film as well. Do you have any favorite genre or favorite films, maybe favorite titles?

My favorite genres are psychological thriller and horror.

Why do you like horror?

I don’t know. I can just go to the cinema alone to watch a horror film. Like, that’s my thing.

You mentioned earlier that you are a quality checker. Can you explain what that is because I’ve never heard of this profession before. I thought all you did was translate subtitles. I guess I’m wrong. So, please illuminate me?

Yeah, so basically if you are a subtitler, you’re just given an English script and then you translate to Malay or any other language, but quality checker’s work is more related to the technical aspect of subtitling. So, basically you check the readability; if it is compact enough for the audience to read in a few seconds.

After that you mentioned quality assurance. What is that? Is that a process as well?

Quality assurance is basically just checking other translators’ work.

So you basically “edit” other translators’ work. So, you’re not just a translator, but you also supervise other translators?


Is this a nine-to-five job, by the way?

It’s a freelance job.

Oh, it’s a freelance job, so you can do it whenever you want, there’s no set time?


But how many days do you usually get to translate a subtitle or supervise other people’s works?

So for Netflix, if you’re a freelancer, your job is to just pick up the task from Netflix software. Whenever they post, you pick up the task. So basically as a freelancer you are competing with other freelancers around the world.

Oh, I see. Okay. But do you report to Netflix directly or do you report to a production house?

It’s a vendor. Currently my vendor is in Israel, so I work in Israel time, as well as California time, which is Netflix HQ.

So the time zones must be really difficult to manage because you’re dealing with people in other regions.

Yeah, sometimes I wake up at 12 a.m because I need to. Yeah, sometimes, but most of the time I would follow Malaysia’s time.

How did you get this job? Like, did you apply or someone offered it to you? I heard that your professor connected you to Netflix, to this job at least. How did you get into this profession basically?

Basically, after I graduated, I worked for several clients locally as a subtitler and then after a few years I started networking with other translators. I started looking for remote work opportunities online. Then I saw someone posted, “We need an English to Malay translator for this company.” So I applied, I took the test, and I got accepted as a Netflix subtitler.

What kind of test did you have to do? Was it hard?

It was okay. They gave me a few videos that I needed to translate and that’s it. They would evaluate and then after a while they said, “Okay, you are accepted.”

How long have you been doing this job? Sounds like you’re an expert in this?

Subtitling for around five years, but with Netflix only around two years.

So when you translate, do you translate from a text—like, do they give you a script—or do you have to listen to the audio?

They gave me a whole software where I need to log in and then there’s the video and there’s the English script, there’s the audio at the bottom, and then there’s like a column for Malay translation.

So you basically have to have an understanding of how softwares work, how computers work. It’s not just about the language, right?

No, it’s not like you get an excel worksheet full of English script. That’s the basic of translation. With Netflix, you have to know a range of other things.

Oh, wow. Okay, it sounds a bit complicated, but I want to assure the viewers who are interested in the profession that by practice you will get better. I’m pretty sure of that. Okay, mind sharing with us what movies you have translated for Netflix so far?

So far for the Netflix Malaysian market I’ve translated Fury. Fury is a film featuring Brad Pitt. It’s a World War II kind of film. Then there’s Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence, I think. A lot of foreign films, which I really like. I’m not so much into Hollywood films, I’m more into foreign films, so like, from Poland, you know…

The artsy type films.

It’s very rare in Malaysia, so whenever I got this kind of job I got very excited like I can watch a dark comedy Polish film that I’ve never watched before. Then, if you’ve heard of Tiger King, the documentary.

What is the movie you’re currently working on for Netflix or for whatever employer you have right now?

So currently I’m translating like one, two, three, four, five, six titles.

Six? At the same time?

Yeah. I’m gonna talk about the challenge, but I’m working now with two foreign films, one is [from] Poland, one is Italy, one is called Crutch and another one is Four to Dinner—that’s a rom-com. Then there are two kids shows, which are Angry Birds and Ada Twist, Scientist. And then another documentary from the Tiger King series. Tiger King came up with a few follow-up documentaries, so I’m translating another one, which is coming soon, I think in December. I don’t know in Indonesia, but in Malaysia, I think around December or January.

You’ve been doing this for a while and I’m sure by now you’re used to the challenges. But what ARE the challenges that you have in this job?

Okay. For me, after a few years of translating, one of the challenges is that it’s not just purely English to Malay translation. It’s more than that. It’s more than just taking the words and then translating. You got to be creative to localize the subtitle, you know. For example, I can get a wide range of genres, from political crime to kids animation and Hong Kong film. So the genre determines the way you translate. That’s one of the challenges because you gotta switch every time. So when you translate you got to know the genre first, you got to determine: Is it formal? Is it informal? And then if in Malay we have like different kata ganti diri, you know, like is it “saya”? “Kau”? If you know, it’s not like “I” and “you” in English, so you got to be careful with that. And then if you got, let’s say, a very American show with a lot of puns, a lot of jokes, that when you translate, it just doesn’t make sense. So that’s when you, as a translator, have to make a decision: Do I have to make a whole new joke or, if this is plot pertinent, do I need to just translate it directly and wish that the audience get it. So yeah, the main challenge about this is the creativity of the translator.

So you spoke about localizing your translations, like you have to match the cultural context and everything. Which shows that are difficult to translate? How do you transfer that cultural nuance for the audience to be able to understand it?

Yeah, so for example there is a show called F is for Family which is like The Simpsons but I’m not really sure if it’s a Netflix original series. I think it is a Netflix original series. It’s like a spin-off of The Simpsons, so it’s a lot of curse words, you know, American-style puns, jargons… Because I already know that this genre is gonna be catered towards a more mature audience, Netflix gives us freedom to translate it truthfully—as truthful as possible. Meaning, even if there are offensive words, they give us freedom to translate it, but they have a guideline. They have a guideline for every language. Meaning, in Malay, let’s say there is an offensive word for LGBTQ groups. Is it really necessary that you have to translate this word? If not, can you translate to something else or can you check with the project manager about this translation. Something like that.

How often do you have to check with your project manager for certain things like the ones you mentioned?

Not often. Usually it depends on my judgment. And because the guideline is very comprehensive, I just follow the guideline. Basically, if you compare it to other companies or maybe Lembaga Film Malaysia, which may be a bit strict in terms of words or censorship, Netflix is quite lenient about that.

So basically you judge by yourself whether you meet the standard of what’s okay and not okay to translate, right? So, in that case, you are fully independent. You work on your own and without much supervision from Netflix itself.

No, it’s just like some other QA linguist will check my work as well. So it’s not just I check other people’s works, but other people check my work as well.

So that’s sort of like peer reviewing, is it?

Yes, and it goes twice or three times, so that’s how we refine the subtitles.

Okay. Now I’m curious, because it sounds like this job is not just about translating. So what do you think it would take for someone to enter this profession? What should they study? Should they study films? Should they study just languages or should they study, I don’t know, law? What do you think?

The bare minimum you have to have as the translator is a sense of passion in at least film or television, at least. Because you’ve got to watch a lot and at the end of the day, I just sleep at the end of the day. I just read and sleep, I don’t even watch anymore. You know, when my housemates are socializing outside, watching Netflix, I’m like, “Guys, I’m just gonna be in the room and read, because I’ve been watching for 12 hours straight.” At least as a translator you need to have that passion of really watching; watching anything, not just something you like. Sometimes when you want the job, you just need to pick up whatever that’s posted by Netflix. So anything, from kids to horror and dark comedy… Polish film that is weird but completely interesting. Yeah, so at least passion in film and television would be great. And then a very good grasp of the source language and your language. Meaning, it’s not just you got to be fluent, that’s it. That’s not the case. You have to be more than fluent. You have to know the cultural context of your language, as well as the source language. That’s why I think a lot of the time Netflix would employ people who actually live in the mother country. Meaning, if they are gonna employ a Malay translator, you have to be stationed in Malaysia. So you would be first-hand in knowing all the cultural—you know culture is evolving every time, right. So they would try to choose the most updated translator with the culture here. So at least two things: you have a passion in film and television, and then you have a full grasp of the language; not just the grammar, not just the technical aspect, but the cultural aspect of it as well.

Okay, so basically you can study anything as long as you have those two things, right? The passion for film and television and understanding the cultural context of the language you speak. That’s very interesting, actually. Who would have thought that— one more criteria?

As a Netflix translator you need to know the technical aspect of the whole video as well, like you’ve got to know where’s the shot change. This is all film terms. Of course, they will give you—the good thing is, they will give you training. So they will actually train you to use… They give a whole lot of resources that you just work through it and then at some point you become a pro.

So how long did they train you to do their films?

For Netflix, I was given three to four days to finish the resources.

Three to four days? I thought you were gonna say three to four months! Honestly, I didn’t think it was gonna be that short.

It’s not that difficult. It’s a bit technical, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fine. They are always present when I ask questions. Even though I’ve never met them, I’ve never had an IG Live or a meeting with them. I’ve never talked to my client face to face, but they are always present in email, like, whenever I ask they would answer. Meaning, this kind of job, as long as you have the will to learn all these things that they have provided and ask whenever you have a question, you’ll be set for it.

Well, as you’ve heard from Salmi, there’s no need to have a degree in linguistics. Like, a master’s in linguistics doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a passion for film and television, you might not make it. And if you can’t communicate well through emails, through chat, then, well… that’s the reality of life right now, right? Like, all of us working from home, we have to be dependable through other means of technology. So, yeah, that’s very interesting. Is there anything else you can share with us, like, some hidden facts about this job that other people might not know? Like, I didn’t know that you had to go training, but now I know. Is there any other little gems like this that you can share?

I think, for me, the most interesting part is the remote aspect of this job. I don’t even have to go to the office and the work still gets done. You know, the project manager is stationed all over the world. Sometimes I get a project manager from Los Angeles, sometimes from Bangladesh. So, it’s very easy for me. Even though I’ve never seen these people, the work is very global, and that’s what I like about it because I love culture in general. That’s why when I got this job, I feel I love the company culture as well. Netflix has been very accommodating towards every questions we have. So, that’s the unique thing about being a movie subtitler, at least in Netflix.

We’re gonna have a little bit of break, because as much fun as it talking to Salmi, I want to remind you guys to send in your questions. I want to know more about your job. Let’s talk about the process. The step-by-step process of your work. What is step one and what is the last step of the job that you do?

Firstly, about the steps, first I checked the genre of the movie. Like what I said, you gotta determine the style: whether it’s informal, whether it’s formal, whether it’s for kids, whether it’s political terms that you need to know. Netflix also gives you a lot of resources about the film or TV show that you are translating. They would call it Show Guide. So this Show Guide usually includes the detailed synopsis, detailed names and characters that I had to know, or what kind of style I need to employ in my translation, and things like that. There is also a script that’s given by Netflix as well, so I just can double-check if there’s anything wrong. There’s also a glossary of important terms or important phrases, sometimes, that I need to ensure consistent throughout their episodes. And then after that I would start translating and then do the QC myself. Like, ensuring the technical aspects of the subtitle, the readability, how compact it is, and then if the audio synchronized with the subtitle, and that’s it. So nowadays, it’s easier because of the advancement of machine translation and computer-assisted tools. So, in the Netflix software, translators now have the privilege to tweak the translation that’s done by the machine. I’m not gonna say it’s 100% accurate—at least 60%—so, as a human translator, you got to evaluate: Is this formal? Is this informal enough? Or is it formal enough? Is it understandable? Does this sound so robotic? Sometimes I have to rewrite everything again, which is better, obviously. You got to put the human touch in the translation that you are providing, but I can say that it is a very helpful tool. So that’s the steps, from the first to the end.

How long does it take you to complete all the steps on average?

It depends, like just now I did a kids show, which is around 10 minutes. 11, so it’s like 11 minutes of Angry Birds. I finished that in two hours. But that’s because I’m more experienced. So, beginners might take a little longer than that. But in my stage of my profession now, I take around 1.5 to 2 [hours] to finish the whole thing.

How about a feature film, like a 90-minute film? How long does it take for you to finish that?

I think around 10 hours, from translating to QC-ing. Everything.

Is that with machine translator? Assisted by machine translator?


So, basically half of the work is done, unless you have to rewrite everything, right?

Yeah. Usually I don’t have to rewrite a lot. It’s just sometimes if I feel like it’s a bit awkward, it doesn’t feel right, it feels too robotic, then of course I rewrite.

Having done a lot of these films, translating and QC-ing, what can you say would be your best work so far?

My best work. I think there are three that I am quite proud of, in terms of the content itself. Like, I feel very deeply in my heart that this is a good film to be watched. One is a documentary called Naomi Osaka. Naomi Osaka is a very famous tennis player in the world, so there was a limited series about her life, basically. It’s just three episodes, but it’s compact and it talks a lot about her mental health. It goes to a lot of behind the scenes of Naomi Osaka. So, I got the chance to translate that to Malay. And then there’s another one, which is called King of Boys. It’s Nigerian. I love this so much. It’s a Nigerian political crime thriller TV show. For me, it’s a very good TV show that I rarely watch. I rarely watch TV because I don’t have time nowadays, but when I got the chance to do this, I was like, “This is actually good, in terms of their production, cinematography, the script…” And I get to translate it. In the King of Boys show, there’s like three different English that they use. They use Yoruba English—so it’s like a different Nigerian style—and there’s like normal English. Yeah, I’m learning so much. I’m, like, I think my niche would be Nigerian. I don’t know if it’s gonna be released in Indonesia, but in Malaysia it’s gonna be released soon. It’s called King of Boys. And then another one is an Israeli documentary called The Motive. This is about murder. I’m sorry if my recommendation is too dark.

No, it’s interesting. Everyone loves comedy, everyone loves romance, but Nigerian political crime thriller good? Oooh, it’s a good recommendation! It’s basically, like, your taste is kind of particular, so that’s very interesting. Okay, so the Israeli documentary. Can you tell us about it?

Yeah. It’s a murder of this whole family by an 11-year-old boy, which is the son. The whole documentary is a re-enaction, but it looks very real. And because I rarely watch Jewish films or TV shows, it intrigued me more. So, I was given the chance to translate that, and for me it’s a good exposure to Jewish… I think it’s a Jewish independent [film], because when I was translating, it was in a Jewish archive something-something. So it’s more like an independent style documentary, kind of.

I hope those shows can be available in Indonesia. I don’t know if they’re gonna be available or not. I hope it will be because I would love to watch those. We’re actually a bit tight on time, so I’m going to ask you the last question from me before we go into the Q&A session. I want you to motivate our viewers. What can you say to motivate someone who wants to try to be a subtitler or a translator?

So, speaking from experience, I’ve always known that I want to be a translator since I was 15 years old, because I’ve always been interested in culture, always interested in language. So these two things have pushed me since the beginning. I told my dad that I’m gonna be a translator, so don’t be asking me to be a mathematician or whatever. I’m not gonna accept. I’m not gonna excel in biology, I’m just gonna focus on language, so I actually practiced language skills since I was young. I took Japanese, I learned Korean, I watched a lot of foreign films that needed subtitling in the bottom so I can actually just read subtitles and really cultivate the passion for culture and knowing other people’s culture as well. If I have to say to anyone who wants to be a linguist or translator or anything or a copywriter, you know, something like this: Yes, of course you have to be good in language, but I think the more important thing is the passion in doing what you are doing. So if you are going to be a translator, you got to be interested to learn new things. And then, of course in terms of language, it’s always good to upskill yourself. Whenever you have time, just read the dictionary, because there are some words that are updated every day that you don’t know because now we have a lot of things online, you can just do it easily online. In Malaysia we have a very good [website] called Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. It’s a one-stop website, and they even have a physical shop as well or like a office, but it’s a one-stop center where you can learn about Malay language in many aspects, like for law, they have the terms for law and everything. So for me, passion in whatever you are, in film or in language itself, like how you use everyday language. It’s good to step back and think, “Oh that’s my language.” It’s good to just reflect on that. I hope that helps.

One last question from me, how many languages do you speak, Salmi? Because I noticed you’ve been mentioning you understand Korean? So how many languages do you speak?

I can speak Mandarin because I took Mandarin for three years in the university, and Japanese a bit, because I took beginner Japanese for five years in school. So other schools have Arabic, my school has Japanese, so I’m like okay, I learn Japanese. Then Korean, because I self-learn and my best friend is Korean, so sometimes whenever we talk, last time she just talked in Korean and I’m like, “Okay. I understand.” So, just English, Malay, Mandarin, Japanese, and a bit of Korean. And hopefully Indonesian. You know, my grandpa is actually from Yogyakarta. I should be able to speak Javanese. My dad is super fluent in Javanese and I’m like, I need to learn Javanese. My dad is always like, “You gotta know how to speak Javanese, you know. I’m your last chance.” So, yeah, that’s it.

Okay, that’s interesting. Now, we enter the Q&A session. I have here four very interesting questions. Some of them are a bit, I don’t know, maybe confidential. I will just ask them, you decide how you can answer and whether you want to answer or not, okay? The first question is: How does Netflix offer the rate for subtitler? Is it per line or per minute and what’s the average rate, if you don’t mind sharing?

For the first part of the question, it’s per minute. The Netflix structure is like, number one is per minute, and number two is per event. Per event is the total lines that you translate. So, there’s a script, right? There’s 184 lines of English script. So that is also included in the rate. So they use per minute and per event.

Oh, so they combine it?


What’s the average rate? Are you allowed to say?

I don’t think so, because I think each vendor is different. Netflix has a lot of vendors. I think each vendor is different, but if I can say average is around five dollars per minute.

That’s quite a lot actually, if you calculate by the minute and the lines. Okay, I hope that answers the question. Next questions is: What software do you use for subtitling at Netflix?

At Netflix we use this software called Netflix Originator, so it’s not a standalone software where you have to download it. It’s just on the browser, you just have to log in, and that’s it. That’s where every record of your work, that’s where you pick up the task, and your history of delivered files, delivered tasks, everything.

So this software is only for Netflix?

Yeah, it’s only for Netflix. So you have to log in, not using your Netflix subscriber handle, but your translator email.

The third question is I have to translate this question into English. Netflix is now being used to learn languages. Is there any adjustments that Netflix directed you to use in translating films?

I don’t quite understand the question, the first part of question. Netflix is used to learn language? I don’t understand.

I don’t understand either, but maybe it’s like saying that Netflix is being used as a facility to using films to study languages. So, is there any direction from Netflix to the translators to the subtitleres such as you are, to help people learn language?

Ah ,okay I understand. So far, one that I know is that they give guidelines, and like I said last time, [for] every language—so let’s say Malay, Indonesian, Polish—they would provide a guideline in how to trans… because every company has a different guideline. So Netflix provides their own and then, let’s say, Netflix is used in classes to teach subtitling, then it’s very specific to Netflix only; it’s not general. I think the general guideline would be in terms of the offensive words. They would give guidelines on how to translate this offensive word: Do you really need it or not? And then maybe in terms of format, maybe. Format is pretty general, so I think it would be the same for every language. But if any of you would like the guideline, I can let you know, because some are general, some can be given to public.

How do you manage your time every day?

I’m a very routine-based person, like a cat. Every day I move, meaning like I go swim, every day, for one hour, just to start the day because translators’ job is a fast-paced job, I can tell you that. It’s a fact that translators have to work around pretty tight deadlines. So you got to manage your time there. So if I have to motivate—just now you asked me to motivate—it’s: please manage your time and energy efficiently as a translator. It’s a very demanding, fast-paced job. Yeah, so I would swim one hour in the morning, and then breakfast, and then just work. I work usually from eight to five p.m. I try to just finish everything. I try to finish my work at least two days before the deadline, because a lot of people think freelancers are very free; like, you can go to cafés. No, to be a successful freelancer you got to have a fixed time of work, just like corporates. You got to have the discipline to clock in, clock out, and then do the work. And then I get eight hours of sleep every day. I try to. The only hard time is when I have to sometimes wake up at night for my client in Israel and sometimes in California. It’s a mess, but it’s not so many days; it’s just a one or two days.

Okay, good to know that you still lead a healthy lifestyle despite the chaos of the scheduling. Our last question is a bit of a… it’s not related to translating or subtitling but I’m going to try my best to translate this question. If you graduate from film and television school, is it true that the highest passing grade is solely for those learning directing?

No. I have a friend. Her name is Elise. She didn’t even take film and television and she’s now a film producer in a production company in Malaysia. A few months back we talked about this also, like me and her and other friends. At least in Malaysia we were given a lot of opportunities to be a producer or whatever, even though you don’t have a film degree or whatever. We have a lot of foundations and independent film companies that give you the opportunity to grow as a producer, as a director, whatever. What I can say in Malaysia is that a degree in film and television doesn’t mean that you’re gonna be a director. You don’t even have to learn in school to be one because it’s a very hands-on job, this whole directing, producing. So you know the basic in the university and you shoot some documentaries—at least in my university we did that—but anything is just after that. You go to production company, you go to film festivals and do this thing.

There are many branches after you graduate film school. There are so many things you can do. Like me, I became a film journalist at one point. It’s not just about directing or cinematography, not just about being a producer, you can also be a subtitler! You can also be like a creative worker for a media company that releases film trailers, you know, things like that. So I hope that answers your question.

Interviewer: Amanda Aayusya
Transcripted by: Farah Diena
Editor: Nurkinanti Laraskusuma

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