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As Subtitling and Dubbing Booms for Global Series, Experts Urge Productions to Plan in Advance

Squid Game (Courtesy of Netflix)

As programming becomes increasingly international in scope in the streaming age, experts are urging the global drama community to allow plenty of time for accurate subtitling and dubbing. But as Netflix found out with “Squid Game,” sometimes a show can become a hit overnight and leave you scrambling.

Netflix’s Catherine Retat, the streamer’s Paris-based director of international dubbing, told Series Mania delegates about the steep learning curve required for the service to properly accommodate the subtitling and dubbing needs for its volume of shows.

“‘Squid Game’ is a wonderful series but no one expected [more than] 100 million viewers in the first 28 days,” said Retat. “We realized we didn’t dub in Italian. We had a suite of languages but not Italian…The content team was like, ‘Please, please hurry!’ but we took our time and we did it right.”

Retat said her team is “learning as we go” and “identifying the best languages so the team puts in effort at the right time and in the right way.”

A big part of the process, she said, is working “upstream” with creatives, meaning her team gets involved earlier on to allow the group to evaluate what the subtitling and/or dubbing needs will be. On one German show in the works (Retat didn’t elaborate on its title), the dubbing team saw a first cut back in November that allowed them to get some context on the show.

“This is where we must be in sync with our content team and the producers and creatives,” said Retat. “We have to work very closely with them. We also discuss challenges when there are multiple languages in a series, and need to make a decision to dub or sub. Then we understand what the content team and creator wants, and we establish a strategy.”

Omar Sy comedy drama “Lupin” was one show where everyone recognized its potential to travel early on. But even so, the team “didn’t expect Brazil could love the show so much,” Retat joked, explaining that specific Portuguese-language needs then had to be factored in to ensure “Lupin” was meeting the demand.

The executive, who recently returned from a trip to meet her counterparts in Asia, also shed light on the cultural considerations that need to be put in place for certain programming. In Korea, for example, Netflix is working on a French dub for hit show “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha.”

“To dub this into French, we’re now working on it with two adapters and a consultant, because when we go from Korean into other languages, we need another step to translate into an English script that’s annotated to give all the necessary cultural context and specificity, and then that script can be translated into other languages,” explained Retat.

A scene in the first episode of the show, for example, features the young lead actor carrying his grandmother on his back, but in Korean culture, you can’t address elders in a direct manner. “So there is a discussion between the two adapters and the consultant to choose the proper way [and ask] how we translate the script to keep the essence of the Korean language,” said Retat.

Ultimately, quality dubbing and subtitling — which is also essential to ensure that all programming is reaching deaf and visually impaired communities — is essential for the proper localization of any global-facing show.

“Think about localization of your show early on,” said Chris Carey, executive VP of marketing and corporate development at localization and media services provider Iyuno-SDI Group. “Think about it when setting the shoot and post production schedule because it’s a whole other process that happens…The dialogue taking place now is different. It’s not just an afterthought, it’s very much in the conversation, and it helps raise the state of the art.”

And yet, according to Holly Diener, a French-English translator who has worked on “Call My Agent!,” translation still isn’t at the high level that it needs to be given the wide distribution of non-English language programming.

“It seems to me there is more and more content being exported around the world thanks to the quality of content and various streamers and broadcasters, so there is more and more volume, and yet that creative input doesn’t seem to be rising with all of that necessarily,” said Diener.

“The subtitling process is all the way at the end of the line and kind of a technical afterthought sometimes — not always but sometimes. It would be great moving forward if it’s part of production process from the get go…so at the end of the day there is time to ensure it lands a global audience.”

Variety's Manori Ravindran contributed to this post.


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