The Italian Job

January 14th, 2010 by

Mew Zuck by gwydionwilliams on Flickr

If you’ve ever holidayed in Italy, you might have noticed that many of the locals, even in popular tourist spots, struggle with English. There are probably a number of causes for this phenomenon, such as a rusty education system and the all southern conviction that “you don’t really need English anyway”, but perhaps the major reason why the Italians and other Southern European countries struggle is the habit of dubbing popular TV shows and movies into their native tongue.

Lost in Translation
Take for example the situation in Italy, which I am personally familiar with. The Italian Dubbers’ Union might pride itself as being the best in the world, but it seems clear that their expertise contributes to the linguistic shortcomings of their countrymen. Compare the average Italian’s English skills with the average person from Scandinavia for example – where programs and movies are aired with subtitles instead of dubbing – and the difference is marked.

While many Italians love their dubbed TV, a large number prefer subtitles in order to maintain a show’s original flavor and to help develop their English skills. Once upon a time these people would have had no alternative to an Italian speaking Homer Simpson. Perhaps they could have purchased expensive satellite systems to pick up foreign countries’ shows, but even then the shows would not be subtitled.

With the advent of high speed file sharing over the internet, opportunities for accessing subtitled media are now plentiful. Accurate subtitles are just a few clicks away, and today people from non-English speaking countries all over the world are making use of them.

One such website that is leading subtitling innovation is Italian Subs Addicted. The site hosts sets of subtitles for thousands of well known American TV and Japanese anime series. As an example of how efficient the Subs Addicted team is, high-quality captions for the last episode of Lost appeared online just six hours after the original was first broadcast in the United States. That means if an American show is on overnight, I can wake up in the morning and watch it complete with subtitles.

Hurry up, Mr Murdoch
The amazing efficiency of sites like Italian Subs Addicted is also presenting a major challenge to the commercial TV networks. While there are certainly moral issues around the ethics of downloading torrents (and more ambiguously “subs support”), the speed with which these sites are providing great-quality captions is leaving the TV networks in their dust.

It wasn’t long ago, for example, that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky network would take months to come up with the dubbed version of one of its popular series. But with sites like Italian Subs Addicted around, it’s now promising dubbed versions just a week later. TV stations are slowly starting to realize that the service provided by subtitle sites is so fast and reliable that waiting months just for a fully dubbed version simply doesn’t make any sense for anyone with an Internet connection, a minimal know-how and few guilty feelings about copyright infringement.

The Italian Subs Addicted team is able to provide results so quickly because it crowdsources the translation work among several collaborators. With teams of people working on separate segments and then checking each others’ work, the end result is not only fast, it’s accurate.

Follow the Crowd to the Buried Treasure
One of the big stars of the gaming world is Monkey Island, the pirate adventure series developed by Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. After three sequels, the series disappeared. Then, in 2009, nearly a decade later, TellTale Games announced there would be another season split into five chapters, aimed at the digital distribution market.

In the non-English speaking world, the buildup to the new series was just as fervent as everywhere else. But six months after it debuted, translations of the text are still not available. Frustrated Italian and Spanish speakers want to buy the game but can’t. You can’t help but wonder how many millions of dollars in sales TellTale Games lost because of this delay. I’d suggest TellTale becomes acquainted with communities like Italian Subs Addicted.

You could argue that allowing people access to a game like Monkey Island before its official release will allow it to leak out – and you’d have a point. But what if a company developed a reliable crowdsourcing system to perform the task? One where its contributors’ rights, identity and security were protected and where the workload would be split into efficient packages?

Crowdsourcing translation is not just a bold new technology that is providing quick, great-quality translations, but it’s also a way for those Italian shopkeepers to brush up on their conversational English. In the gaming world it is an underutilized tool that sounds to me like a good way of keeping customers happy and providing a service when it really matters.

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  • paolo sonego

    This morning, during my commuting time, a friend of mine and I were discussing exactly the same subject and we got to the same conclusions: call it synchronicity!Anyway, nice title! :-D

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  • Sami Sundell

    The same problem with English and dubbing also appears in Germany – in some places it's still really hard to find anyone speaking English. A few years ago I was in CeBit, and I was staying with a family – educated, well-spoken people. Well, I assume the latter, because no one in the family spoke English.

    Of course, it's not only subtitles, it's also the significance of the language – German is spoken widely, and same goes for Spanish or even Italian, at least compared to Scandinavic people. We can't afford learning only Finnish or Swedish. In Finland, subtitles are used for pretty much everything except for children's programmes, so the TV as such is not really a problem. However, there's a worrying tendency of subtitle translations getting worse, they sometimes contain really stupid mistakes.

    This tendency is probably caused by the everlasting need of getting something as cheap as possible. Now, the question is, if peer-reviewed “free” translators manage to do better job then the over-burdened official translators, when will the broadcasters realize this and start making use of those crowd-sourced translation efforts?

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  • Pedro

    I completely agree with you.
    I want to add also that luckily now it's possible to buy a DVD which contains the original language and many subtitles. And a lot of satellite/cable channels are offering interactive subtitles choices.
    This is (slowly) helping people for countries where foreign languages are not widely speak.