Localization Challenges in Closed Captioning, Subtitling and Video Translation: Maximising Viewership in Key Languages

August 7, 2020
Localization Challenges in Closed Captioning, Subtitling and Video Translation: Maximising Viewership in Key Languages

I subscribed to Disney+ last month and my kids have been watching it non-stop ever since. 

I’m already a Netflix and an Amazon Prime subscriber, consuming almost all of my TV shows and movies through video on demand services. 

Do you get most of your screen-based entertainment through a video on demand service? Or maybe more than one? If so, read on to explore the challenges that these companies pose to localization services when it comes to closed captioning, subtitling and video translation! 

The Growth of Video Streaming

I ditched my cable subscription about three years ago (sorry, Sky) and these days rarely watch anything on live TV, other than the news. Turns out, I’m not alone in doing so. 

The Motion Picture Association of America announced in March 2019 that global video streaming services had surpassed those with a cable connection, with the figures standing at 613.3 million users and 556 million users respectively. 

Personally, I could name maybe eight or nine subscription-based video streaming services if pushed to do so, but there are actually over 400 such services around the world. According to global trade association FIPP, paid subscription numbers now total 683 million – and that’s not even counting the 75 million or so Amazon Prime Video subscribers.

Video streaming has grown so massively and so rapidly that I thought it was worth taking a look at the industry in a little more depth. Being devoted to all things language-related, I decided to come at it from that perspective, putting translation and localization under the microscope. Here’s what I discovered. 

The Importance of Localization and Language

My first musing was around the languages that subscription video streaming services are using, so I began looking at the most popular companies. Netflix topped the table, with 151.6 million subscribers as at November 2019, according to the FIPP Global Digital Subscription Snapshot. That was followed by three Chinese services: iQiyi, with 100.0 million subscribers, Tencent Video with 94.0 million and Youku, with 82.1 million. In fifth place was Amazon Prime Video, with 75 million subscribers. 

Altogether, the top ten streaming subscription services account for over 80% of market share and all originate from the US, China and India (positions six to ten on the list were taken up by South East Asia’s Viu, Hulu from the US, Alt Balaji and Eros Now from India and Asia’s Iflix). 

At a glance, it would be easy to assume that English, Mandarin and Hindi, then, are the most popular streaming languages. Broadly speaking, that’s the case, but in reality, language localization has played a key role in many of these leading companies’ success stories. Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Greg Peters sums the reason for this up pretty succinctly:

“It doesn't matter where you live or what languages you speak, this is about great storytelling. Netflix members around the world want authentic storytelling, they want a perspective from a passionate creator that’s grounded in the local culture.”

I took a look at Indian video consumption and found that the local language element is key. Star India-owned video streaming platform Hotstar, for example, reports that over 40% of video content is consumed in regional languages, with Tamil, Telugu and Bengali topping the table. If you’re interested in Indian regional languages, by the way, I’ve taken an in depth look at them in a recent article – you can access it via the link below. 

Netflix, too, is keen to use regional languages. In 2012, it was streaming in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The latter was mainly to serve the Brazilian market, as just 5% of Brazilians speak English, according to UOL, with only 3% speaking it fluently. By producing Portuguese content, Netflix had racked up 15 million subscribers in Brazil by the end of 2019. 

By 2017, Netflix was delivering content in more than 20 languages, including Arabic, Korean, Polish, and Turkish. 

Read more: What Languages Are Spoken in India?

Do you want to watch a video instead? Here's a short one that can indulge your viewing pleasure.


Case Study: Netflix and Localization

Netflix’s strategy is based around delivering local content for local users. Initially that meant just delivering shows in other languages but increasingly it has meant producing original content as well as licensing it. 

The company’s first foray into producing content from outside the US came in 2014, when it commissioned Brazilian show 3 Percent. The show debuted at the end of 2016 and was popular in Brazil. What I found particularly interesting about this example was that 3 Percent was also immensely popular outside of Brazil, with around half of its viewers watching from other countries. 

I think it’s fair to say that this was quite the eye-opener for Netflix when it came to producing non-English content. German show Dark is another good example of this. 90% of its audience are from outside of Germany. Dark even ranks in the top ten shows in several countries. 

Netflix has certainly run with the idea of producing and localizing content ever since that first foray into Brazil, with impressive results. Chief Product Officer Greg Peters observed that, “Great stories can come from anywhere and they can travel everywhere.” 

True enough, but the localization of that content also has to be spot on in order to enable shows to maximise their viewer numbers around the globe. This applies whether the content has been produced by Netflix or acquired by it. 

It is this localization process at which Netflix now excels. In the last few months, I’ve enjoyed watching Money Heist and The Rain more than almost anything else on TV. The former was produced in Spanish, the latter in Danish. Both were dubbed for English (and other) audiences and subsequently enjoyed success outside of their home countries. 

I thought the Money Heist example was particularly interesting as the show originally flopped in Spain, with plummeting viewer figures when it was aired on Antena 3. Enter Netflix, however, and after some extensive translation and localization work, the show has been enjoyed by more than 65 million viewers around the world. 

Netflix hasn’t always got its localization spot on though. I was entertained to see the company sharing examples of its localizing failures with Variety one of which included using the mistranslated phrase, “Come back, absent pigeon” during a particularly dramatic shot of a mother holding a baby. 

There are plenty more examples like this out there, but to be fair to Netflix it has done a great deal to ensure that its localization has stepped up since the example above. The company has experimented with various translation methods for its closed captioning, subtitling and video translation in order to maximise viewership figures. 

In 2017, for example, Netflix began working through its Hermes translation portal to meet its translation needs. The arrangement lasted just one year due to the vast complexity of managing so many linguists.

Netflix now works with thousands of translation and localization professionals, managed through several language services providers, in order to deliver content to global audiences. And judging by the firm’s audience numbers, I’d say the strategy is working well! 

Newcomer: Disney+ and Localization

I found the Disney+ example to be an interesting one as well. Disney+ is the newcomer on the video streaming scene, having launched in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Puerto Rico in November 2019 and in various European countries in March 2020. Plenty of work went into translating and localizing the viewing experience for different countries. When it launched in India in April 2020, for example, the service was rebranded as Disney+ Hotstar to better resonate with local audiences. 

The strategy has been an incredibly effective one. Disney estimated that its streaming service would attract between 60 and 90 million subscribers by 2024. As at 4 August 2020, it had already hit a total of 60.5 million subscribers. I suspect that Netflix may be keeping a close eye on the rival service’s explosive growth. 

Suffice it to say, localization is important when it comes to delivering a superb viewer experience and thus increasing subscriber numbers.

Other Streaming Services

Other streaming services have enjoyed greater or lesser degrees of success as a result of their own attempts at localization. Hulu’s audience numbers have shot up recently, for example. The Disney-owned service had 22.8 million subscribers at the end of December 2018. By the end of 2019, that figure had risen to 30.4 million subscribers. 

The Challenges of Localization

Ultimately, localization is about delivering an experience that makes the viewer feel comfortable with the platform and the content. That means serving up both suitably translated subtitles and dubbed content. I’ve outlined some of the key challenges of this below. 

Managing the Translation and Localization Process

This is a huge undertaking for a service the size of Netflix or any of the other leading streaming services. I wasn’t surprised to see Netflix’s Hermes operation struggle. Managing so many translation and localization experts through its own portal was always going to be a challenge. Simply onboarding so many translators would consume an immense amount of time! 

Balancing Closed Captioning, Subtitling and Dubbing

As well as managing the individual linguists, there’s also the challenge of deciding which content to deliver subtitles or closed captions for and which to dub. Getting this wrong can have a big impact on viewer numbers, so requires expert local knowledge. 

Netflix has done some research in this area. It found that foreign language viewers state that they prefer to watch the original version with subtitles. However, its viewing figures told a different story – namely that viewers preferred dubbed content rather than subtitled. 

I note that Netflix has put an average increase in investment of 25-35% into dubbing over the past several years. The move is both fuelling and in response to an increase of more than 120% annually in dubbed content consumption. 

Localization Quality Assurance

The other challenge that struck me when looking into video streaming services’ efforts to engage global viewers was the need for quality assurance. Netflix’s candidly shared examples of its localization fails highlight how essential this is. One classic example was a show that featured a young man looking serious. The subtitle that accompanied the scene read, “The one that is boiled and eaten should be a heart.” Quite. 

The solution is to use multiple translation and localization professionals to check the work of their fellow professionals. That means quality checking every show for every language it’s delivered in. It’s a mind-bogglingly huge undertaking! 

Solving the Localization and Translation Conundrum

When it comes to managing translation and localization successfully, investing in the right platforms and processes is key. Netflix found this out with its Hermes ventures and other streaming services have also experimented with different translation methods over the years. 

The right operation needs to not only deliver suitably qualified and experienced linguists, but also provide the means to recruit and manage them with ease. Without both of these elements in place, the approach is unlikely to be a major success. 

Accessing the right number and calibre of translation professionals is also important. I can only imagine the complexities of doing this when you’re producing content for almost every country in the world! It’s why outsourcing is an ideal solution. Video streaming services that outsource can rely on language services providers to do what they do best – localize and translate. Meanwhile, the streaming provider can focus on what they do best – delivering outstanding content. It’s a win-win. 

Part of this means having a backup plan in place. Relying on a single vendor provides scope for a single point of failure. Having a secondary and even a tertiary vendor in place can lower this risk.


Over the past few years, local content has seen a significant rise in popularity, thanks to localized video streaming platforms focusing on its delivery. The impact on the industry has been notable. Statista reports that video streaming revenue is projected to show combined annual growth rate of 10.7% between 2020 and 2025, with user numbers growing from 882 million to 1,337 million over the same period. 

Localization, subtitling and video translation will all play a key role in this, as well innovations in artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. 

Personally, I’m delighted by the amount of attention that Netflix and its ilk are paying to delivering localized viewing experiences. After all, I’m one of the hundreds of millions of viewers who gets to reap the rewards of their efforts. Long may they continue! 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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