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  • The introduction of DVD technology in 1996 led to an explosion of demand for subtitles all over the world.

  • London became one of the world’s two centres for DVD multilingual subtitling, drawing on the ready availability of linguistic talent in London. 

  • From 2001, US media conglomerates and private equity funds began to buy up British and European subtitling companies. After takeover, new owners changed the management teams and initiated programmes of cost-cutting measures. 

  • No subtitling companies have increased their rates since 1999/2000, already much lower than in the 1980s, and almost all announced decreases in 2005, 2006 and 2007. 

  • Technologically a lot has changed, making life easier but also changing the sociology of work and changing the political balance of power in favour of subtitling companies and against subtitlers.  

  • Companies no longer need offices and IT infrastructures as large as those required in the past. Broadband and the provision of subtitling software to freelance providers - and, in many cases, the compulsory purchase of expensive software by freelancers if they wished to continue working for a company - should have improved the financial standing of subtitling companies. But more pressure to cut costs further destabilized this already delicate balance once again.

  • Another aspect of globalisation is that subtitling companies are taking advantage of the varied cost of living in different countries to further reduce production costs, finding the cheapest possible labour and relying on their usual panel of experienced professionals mainly for quality control rather than actual subtitling, instead of paying good subtitlers worldwide a fair rate.

To sum up, subtitling in the UK is at a critical juncture. There is fierce price competition, driven by studios and broadcasters whose profits have decreased. This has in some cases resulted in a 50% reduction in the fees paid to language service providers. Subtitlers working for some companies are now paid less per hour than better-paid cleaners. In spite of the higher level of skills required, audiovisual translation is remunerated at a lower level than other forms of translation. Faced with the choice of earning between around £7 and £13 per hour localising audiovisual content and £30 or more per hour doing other, less technically-demanding translation work, many foreign-language subtitlers are being forced to leave the industry. They are being replaced by inexperienced providers willing to work for low pay and having to acquire the necessary technical skills. Those who choose to stay in subtitling have to increase their output tremendously to maintain their current level of income. In both cases, quality suffers, as do filmmakers, studios and the audience. This has serious negative implications for the transmission of English-language films to non-English speaking audiences.

If present trends continue, the outcome will be to the detriment of subtitlers, subtitling companies, the audience and, ultimately, the studios and broadcasters who are driving the trend towards lower prices.

Although incomes have been declining for many years, subtitling companies argued that this was compensated for by the large volume of work due to the DVD releases of the vast back catalogue of films. But the DVD boom years are now over. Subtitling a 90-minute feature film to an acceptable quality takes an average of three working days. This is the equivalent of £6.37 per hour at the lowest rates currently offered. Some subtitlers report hourly earnings of less than the minimum wage when working on particularly demanding projects.

The simultaneous centralisation and decentralisation of the industry on a global scale also means that the UK’s position as a centre in this part of the global media industry is under threat. Operations are being centralised in Los Angeles and subtitles are increasingly sourced in lower-cost countries. For English-language subtitlers this means they have to compete with income levels in countries like India and Malaysia, while subtitlers working into other languages are in competition with colleagues in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Of course there are capable, professional subtitlers in all these countries and they are able to compete on price to a certain extent, but the evidence so far suggests that, in many cases, the drive to reduce costs even further and the lack of recognition of subtitling as a demanding profession is resulting in work being carried out by novices lacking the technical skill as well as the harder-to-acquire cultural and linguistic competence. Subtitling companies seem aware that subtitling quality is likely to decline and have therefore tried to keep their rates for quality control work unchanged. UK-based subtitlers are therefore spending more time correcting work of a lower quality (paid per programme minute, a fixed price per film or programme regardless of how much reworking it requires), with a resulting reduction in what was already a modest income.

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