When in doubt, ask Ken Watanabe. That’s what the producers and directors of Tokyo Vice learned on the set of the bilingual HBO Max show. The drama series, about an American journalist (Ansel Elgort) sinking into Japan’s criminal underworld, features dialogue that is mostly Japanese, which was subtitled into English for its U.S. release and based on scripts that were first written in English by American playwright J. T. Rogers before undergoing several rounds of translation. Yet even after a rigorous adaptation process, the show’s creative team still found it prudent to double-check word choices with their actor known for working in both languages.
“When there were differences of opinion about dialogue translations, we let Ken be the decider,” says Alan Poul, an executive producer on Tokyo Vice and the director of “Yoshino,” its finale. “It was so important to have the final decisions being made by somebody who was not just, of course, Japanese, but also understood the drama and the characters.” Poul, who is fluent in both English and Japanese, especially leaned on colleagues like Watanabe and fellow director Hikari as COVID-19 restrictions tightened mid-production and the makeup of Tokyo Vice’s crew became more and more Japanese. “There’s a lot of vernacular in the show, and also the ways in which people choose to express themselves emotionally,” he says. “You can’t just translate the words directly.”
As audiences embrace subtitles, translated series have become more common, particularly on streaming services. From the Netflix hits Squid Game, Money Heist, Babylon Berlin, and Call My Agent, to Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, to Pachinko and Tehran on Apple TV+, more international shows are breaking through on mainstream American platforms, requiring streamers to navigate an array of global nuances as they localize new titles. Localization, or the process of readying a title produced in one country to be watched in another, is a minefield of logistical challenges and cultural sensitivities that includes commissioning translations for audio dubs, closed captions, and subtitles; juggling bilingual casts and crews; and adjusting to colloquial terms and cultural traditions across different languages. We are far removed from the days of flagrant cultural erasure through dubbing — Pokémon once tried to pass off a Japanese rice ball as a “jelly donut” — but high-profile releases like Squid Game can still reignite yearslong debates about how best to adapt international titles for Stateside consumption.
When Squid Game dropped on Netflix and became a global sensation, it didn’t take long for complaints to pour in about how clumsily the show’s original Korean dialogue had been translated. Lines were mangled; character traits were flubbed; honorifics were mishandled. The show unintentionally served as an example of how localization can go wrong. That’s why improving the quality of translated content has become a priority for streamers increasingly tapping into their international resources for the next big hit. It’s a process that generally unfolds over the course of five steps.
Rewriting (and Rewriting, and Rewriting) the Script
Whether you’re translating a big-budget movie or a small documentary series, each localization starts with a revised script often referred to as a “template.” These scripts are based on the actual screenplay used in production, at times with added notes to explain the context of certain cultural phrases, words, slang terms, honorifics, and more things to keep in mind when translating. Like practically everything else in the industry, there is no industry-wide standard for templates.
“It really depends on the company” producing or distributing the title, says Kristofer Fredriksson, the chief editor at localization firm LinQ Media, based out of Stockholm, Sweden. “Sometimes you get a lousy script that leads you down a rabbit hole of Googling terms, and other times the scripts are fantastic, with explanations in brackets.” LinQ is one of several localization companies whose work Netflix and other streamers outsource to provide subtitles. These services are supervised by the streamers, but the actual translation depends entirely on individuals like Fredriksson. Often the vendors’ work is created without meaningful feedback or oversight from either streaming platforms or production companies.
While there is no across-the-board quality standard for localized titles, the streamers with global footprints have begun to formalize their own approaches. Each company’s distribution guidelines are somewhat different. Netflix, for instance, follows specific, public guidelines for how its original titles’ subtitles and dubbing should look and sound, to maintain the original creative intent of a story across translations rather than dozens of varying interpretations. Disney+’s guidelines grew from Disney’s corporate DNA as an international home-video distributor decades before it launched a streaming service. (Disney’s guide, among other parameters, mentions what profanity is permitted by content rating: “Disney highly recommends replacing the following with alternate language: cunt, shit, piss, cock, tit, fuck, and ass.”) HBO Max publishes no such guidelines — it only expanded into European markets in March — while Crunchyroll, the largest anime streaming service, has no set guidelines; the company says it tailors its translation needs by individual title.
As the number of languages in demand increases, so does the need to streamline the process. One way to do that is by creating a “pivot script” in English. For languages that are not commonly spoken outside their origin country, or where a direct translator is harder to find (think an Assamese-Spanish translator or a Punjabi-Yiddish one), that English script will be used as a base by translators around the world. “If you can translate a Spanish show from the original script, that’s always preferred, but it gets more complicated when you try to translate to languages like Korean or Malay,” says Catherine Retat, the director for international dubbing at Netflix. The obvious drawback: The script will have gone through two translations, which can affect the accuracy of the final product. Retat says Netflix stays rather hands-on in checking every step of the translation process to ensure its fidelity to the original script across languages.
Even with all that checking, an airtight pivot script doesn’t guarantee a perfect adaptation. Sometimes a script will give you literally no options to translate something, as is the case with made-up words. HBO’s Game of Thrones famously made headlines when it revealed how Hodor got his name. Fans were shocked and distraught over the fate of the character; translators around the world, meanwhile, panicked over trying to make the phrase “Hold the door” make sense in their language, while also trying to make it fit “Hodor” when shortened, to mixed results.
Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, Fredriksson offers a blanket answer: Keep the original word. A “balrog” is a “balrog” whether in English, Spanish, or Norwegian, as is the word “hobbit,” while the Spanish translation for The Witcher just slightly adapts the words of the show’s various creatures to Spanish grammar, but otherwise leaves them untranslated.
Building a Subtitle “Barrier”
When his Korean-language film Parasite won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, director Bong Joon Ho said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He was right, but first, that barrier must be created, and it must literally fit into the screen.
According to Fredriksson, because each platform follows its own distribution guidelines, the differences can critically affect a given title’s subtitles. When a title hopscotches from one streamer to the next, or goes from theaters to streaming, oftentimes the subtitles are redone from scratch to meet the platform’s requirements. Netflix’s guidelines specify everything from the positioning of subtitles, alignment, bolding, and italics. The style guides used by Netflix and Disney+ specify that the number of English subtitle characters that can be displayed onscreen at any given moment — known as “line segmenting” — is 42 per line, and the exact number of frames a line of dialogue can be onscreen before moving onto the next line — “timing” — is 20. Typography is a consideration too: Apple’s guidelines for tvOS apps list out specs for the font Dynamic Type, including options for captions and subtitles.
Across the board, details like line segmenting, timing, and the fonts vary by language, as some language characters take up more space than others, and even by region. (There are differences in how Latin American and Castilian Spanish, for example, are formatted.) This also leads to a lot of variety between a literal translation of dialogue and the text that flashes across the screen in 42 characters. As Kathy Rokni, director of globalization at Netflix, explains, what is translated in the subtitles follows the creative intent of the original script, even if it differs from the literal translation. That’s one of her team’s rules. Another rule: Netflix’s subtitles guidelines dictate that foreign dialogue not translated in the original text should not be translated. If a French show featured a Spanish-speaking character untranslated for some narrative reason, the speaker’s lines would go untranslated in subtitles around the world.
“We have language managers who set those guidelines and standards,” Rokni says. “Yet we are constantly reviewing those guidelines” and testing for new subtitle options and customization.
The medium profoundly affects the message. The number of characters and dialogue speed, in particular, hold enormous sway over what translators choose to keep. And final calls aren’t always made in-house. (Netflix once tried to recruit translators for a program called HERMES that was shut down after just one year, in favor of outsourcing localizations.) As Fredriksson puts it, the lack of space and time means you are constantly forced to compromise. Jokes you thought were hysterical disappear from the screen too fast. Words that seemed inessential but provided context are discarded. This is how honorifics and cultural context shift or evaporate, and why Squid Game’s original English-subtitle script ran with the line “I never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart,” before it was later changed to “I never bothered to study, but I’m insanely savvy.” A more literal translation would be: “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to be educated.”
Fredriksson’s solution to this, as with “balrogs,” is to leave certain things untranslated. Though Swedish doesn’t have words for “sir” or “ma’am,” those English words have gone untranslated yet subtitled in shows and movies for decades, to the point where Swedish audiences simply take them for granted and internalize their meaning. “The more you see it, the more you get used to it,” he says. Longtime anime fans know what he’s saying. In the days before simulcasting, international anime fans often discovered the art form through community-created translations — fansubs — shared on peer-to-peer networks. Fansubs commonly left Japanese honorifics or idioms intact, often with a lengthy note from the translator explaining the meaning of the word — at times with hilariously bad results.
The fansubbers’ priority was to be as accurate as possible, rather than to be unobtrusive, so the text took a lot more space, but over time, the notes became smaller and less common as certain words entered the English-fandom lexicon. By now, people have grown so used to words like “senpai,” “sensei,” or even “onii-san” that they can be left untranslated.
Here Comes the Dub
Lots of viewers, though, prefer listening to dubs rather than reading subs, even if the voices don’t always match the faces on their screen. But before the voice actors are called to the recording booth, there’s another layer of translation involved. Squid Game’s English-dub director, Madeleine Heil, describes her process as getting a translated script that she then has to send to another translator to adapt to fit the lip sync before she can then start casting and recording dialogue.
“When people talk about things getting lost in translation, it is 100 percent true,” Heil explains. “You can have a situation where the original translator used a word, but the adapter sees the lip sync and decides that a different word fits better. The script goes through two phases and things get changed.”
For Heil, this makes it essential to have a dub voice cast familiar with the original language, which offers another set of eyes capable of catching a mistranslation or suggesting a better alternative. (In the case of Squid Game, the majority of the voice cast was Korean American.) For its original series, Disney+ takes advantage of a whole other corporate subsidiary dedicated to this, Disney Character Voices International (DCVI), which the company says “stays in lockstep with productions, reviews early cuts, and scripts to cast appropriately and authentically.”
Heil and Retat both point out that the most essential part of dubbing is to be as accurate to the original as possible, but there is some leeway for interpretation, especially when it comes to comedies full of wordplay. The Latin American Spanish translation for Shrek, for example, had actor and comedian Eugenio Derbez contribute to the adaptation, swapping most of the jokes for ones that worked better in Spanish. One particular joke in Shrek 2, where Derbez replaces Donkey singing the theme of Rawhide with the popular Latin song “El Za Za Za (Mesa Que Más Aplauda)” actually led to a lawsuit.
“Comedy is very difficult to do dubbing for, so you just pray that you get an adapter who is funny,” Heil says.
The Caption Crunch
When comments about Squid Game’s inaccurate subtitles began circulating, several articles popped up to break down the difference between the show’s closed captions and subtitles. As Rokni explains, closed captions for international films are based on the dubbed translation and come with their own limitations that are enforced by the Federal Communications Commission.
“There is a totally separate set of guidelines we have to follow,” on top of the institutional parameters, Rokni says. “They should follow the English audio exactly, so reading speeds become something else compared to regular subtitles, because [closed captions] have all the words, but they are words made to fit the lip sync, so they’ll be different than the subtitling script.”
This is why, when you watch non-English titles, you get two very different experiences depending on which onscreen text you choose. The closed captions may have more words per line, but they follow the English-dubbed script (meaning the words have been changed at least twice) to fit the lip sync, while the English subtitles are based on the first translated script and tend to be a more accurate translation. To add another layer of potential fallibility, while the dubbing team works independently from the subtitling one, the creation of most closed captions is handled by the subtitling teams.
Watching and Waiting
The challenges won’t go away anytime soon, as Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, and other streamers boast upcoming TV and film offerings that draw more and more from around the world. After those titles are localized or produced, it all comes down to the audience, who are vocal about what does and doesn’t work for them. When subtitles or dubs are done right, they can introduce viewers to stories they would not have seen otherwise. Done wrong, they’re a disjointed mess.
Reflecting on the backlash that followed Squid Game, Sophia Klippvik, the marketing manager and Korean translator at LinQ, understands viewers’ impatience with mistranslations and cultural malapropisms. “People want a window into this world and to feel like they understand, and shows like this can teach you about the language and culture,” she says. “When it’s not fully or well translated for any reason, budget or fitting the number of characters, it is frustrating as there is not much you can do as a viewer.”
Accounting for that frustration was on the minds of Tokyo Vice’s team from day one. Poul wanted Japanese audiences to be as invested in Tokyo Vice as American audiences would be — capable of enjoying it without having to point out mistakes. He recalls having to take a production hiatus during the pandemic, right around the time the Squid Game backlash came to a head online. “I watched that and my head exploded,” Poul says. “It didn’t seem to hurt Americans’ enjoyment of it, but it was suddenly amateur hour. I was like, ‘This is why we’re spending all this effort: because we don’t want us to look like that.’”