Machine-translated subtitling – human translators are up in arms

We are ATAA, a 550-strong French professional audiovisual translation association (subtitling, dubbing, voice-over, audio description, and video games) and we want to alert fellow translators, clients, broadcasters, directors, scriptwriters, editors, and all people involved in creating audiovisual works, as well as the viewers of films, series, and documentaries.

A major streaming platform, preparing to launch in France, has turned to subcontractors who massively use machine-translated subtitling.

It is now well-known that machine translation is an oxymoron, because humans do not just translate words – they translate meaning. And no machine can understand the information it is processing. It only makes statistical connections. It can’t even see the images it is supposed to be subtitling. So forget about aesthetics, subtext, tone, sound, editing and rhythm. A machine cannot handle poetry, style, nor employ irony or wordplay. In short, it cannot convey humanity through words. Nonetheless, it plunders the work of real authors, since the databases it needs use translation works made over decades by people who have never been asked for their consent. In France, translation in artistic fields is protected by the Intellectual Property Code and the translator has a moral right which must be respected.

Unsurprisingly, machine translation doesn’t work (here are examples why). Those who sell this technology count on us, professional translators, to correct – or “post-edit” it, as they say. Mission impossible! The nonsense churned out by the machine has to be rewritten almost completely. In the end, to obtain decent subtitling, this method proves more costly in terms of time and energy than employing professionals directly (this Manifesto from AVTE, the European federation of audiovisual translators, explains it all).

We therefore call out to:

  • translators who refuse to become machine correctors: Reject these jobs systematically!
  • all audiovisual professionals who do not want to see their work ruined: Stand up for quality translation made by real humans and say no to these practices!
  • viewers who prefer to enjoy properly translated works rather than products that have been butchered by machines: Make yourselves heard!

Article modified on October 3 2022, at 6 PM, following an interview with representatives from the platform. They stated that quality adaptations are very important to them and that they are against machine-translated subtitling. However, this practice is developing, and our article denounces it, regardless of who is responsible. As this does not change the job offers received by subtitlers, we have chosen to remove the platform's name from the press release, without deleting it completely.

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