Subtitlers’ beliefs about pivot templates: What do they tell us about language hierarchies and translation quality in streaming service platforms?

Susana Valdez, Hanna Pięta, Ester Torres-Simón and Rita Menezes
Leiden University | Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, FCSH, CETAPS | Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona | University of Lisbon Centre for English Studies

Streaming service platforms are said to increase worldwide access to peripheral languages, often via the use of pivot templates. To shed light on how pivot subtitling practices impact language hierarchies and translation quality, we report on the results of an online questionnaire completed by European subtitlers. The questionnaire elicited data on the respondents’ experiences and expectations when translating from pivot templates for streaming services and other media environments (such as cable TV, cinema, and websites). The questionnaire was completed by 370 subtitlers and the elicited data were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively. The results suggest that streaming platforms reinforce traditional language hierarchies by strengthening the position of English as a hyper-central language (Heilbron 2010). ‘Peripheral–peripheral’ subtitling practices (e.g., Korean–Danish) occur mainly through pivot templates in English, and so do ‘central–central’ subtitling practices (e.g., German–French). This means that even when the original content is in a language other than English, English is still the most common source language for subtitlers because of the use of pivot templates. Furthermore, according to our respondents, pivot templates are more common in streaming platforms than in other media environments. The use of pivot templates is also reported to negatively impact subtitlers’ working conditions and give rise to particular ethical, linguistic, and technological challenges for which there are currently few guidelines and training opportunities.

Publication history
Table of contents

It has been said that streaming service platforms have worked to empower peripheral languages (e.g., Danish, Korean, and Arabic; see Heilbron 2010). This is because they enhance the visibility of these languages in the global media ecology and increase their access to other peripheries (Oziemblewska and Szarkowska 2022, 448). In the streaming media ecosystem, such ‘periphery–periphery’ subtitling practices typically rely on the use of pivot templates. In this study, we regard a template as “a subtitle file consisting of the spotted subtitles of a film done in the SL [source language], usually English, with specific settings in terms of words per minute and number of characters in a row, which is then translated into as many languages as necessary” (Georgakopoulou 2003, 210). Pivot templates are thus template files in a third language that differs from the language of the original content and the final subtitles. Following Heilbron (2010), peripheral languages are languages that occupy a marginal position in the traditional model of the world system of translation (i.e., they are the source language for less than 1% of translations produced worldwide). These contrast with hyper-central English (the source language for the vast majority of translations worldwide), semi-central languages (which account for between 1% and 3% world market, such as Italian, Spanish, and Russian), and central languages (which account for about 10% of the global translation market, such as German and French) (see Heilbron 2010).

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