Why Not to Use Machine Translation to Translate Subtitles

Posted by Robert Rutledge on November 25, 2021

Perhaps one of the hottest debates in the translation industry as of late has been the controversial practice of MTPE (machine translation post-editing)—particularly within subtitle translation, as made evident by Netflix’s latest smash-hit series Squid Game. As I am sure most of us know by now, MTPE consists of putting content through a machine translation engine such as Google Translate and paying a professional linguist to clean up the resulting translated output. It is not my aim here to argue for or against using MTPE to improve productivity and reduce cost. In fact, in certain fields where the use of language is relatively fixed or repetitive, such as technical translation, it can do a very good job at producing a near-human-level translation. However, in other fields, where the language is generally more unpredictable and less controlled, machine translation fails miserably. Here is why you should ditch the machine translation and instead hire a professional subtitle translator.

As a professional subtitle translator, I have come across many Spanish expressions that, when put through machine translation, come out laughable at best and unintelligible at worst. But let’s stop a minute and think of some of our own expressions and sayings in English that would make no sense if translated by machine translation into a foreign language. For example, have you ever considered how ridiculous it is that we say we “blow” our noses when it is actually our noses we are using to blow out snot? Or how about when we go to “fly” a kite, as if it were an airplane? I could go on and on. Most machine translation engines are not yet sophisticated enough to catch onto the nuance of such expressions found across different languages.

To demonstrate the inadequacy of these machine translation engines, here are a few interesting Colombian expressions I’ve encountered in my career translating Colombian telenovelas as interpreted by Google Translate and DeepL, two of the most popular commercial machine translation engines. I will also give a brief explanation of each expression.

  1. No des papaya.
Google Translate. Spanish: No des papaya. English: Don't give papaya.
DeepL Translator. Spanish: No des papaya. English: Do not give papaya. Alternatives: Don't give papaya.

This popular expression is used as a warning to not leave yourself open to being robbed. For example, if I am a tourist wandering around in a bad part of town with my Rolex on and talking on my iPhone 13, I would be “dando papaya” because I am basically asking for trouble. The word “papaya” can be thought of as an “opportunity,” not in the positive sense of the word, but rather an opportunity for someone else to steal from you. This expression is very difficult to translate into English because we don’t really have a direct corresponding expression. We would say something along the lines of “be aware of your surroundings” or perhaps “keep an eye out for pickpockets” in this type of situation, implying that you shouldn’t be flaunting expensive jewelry, cell phones, etc.

Another expression in the same vein is “papaya partida, papaya comida.” This expression is used by the person who is taking or stealing something and literally translates as “the papaya is split so the papaya is eaten.” It implies that since the "papaya" has been split open (or been left exposed), it’s as good as gone. I have encountered this expression and translated it as “Now’s my chance!”

  1. ¿Me estás mamando gallo?
Google Translate. Spanish: ¿Me estás mamando gallo? English: Are you sucking me cock?
DeepL Translator. Spanish: ¿Me estás mamando gallo? English: Are you sucking my cock? Alternatives: Are you blowing me, cock? Are you giving me a blow job? Are you giving me a blowjob?

This popular expression is used to mean something along the lines of “are you kidding me?” It does not have any sexual connotation whatsoever (at least not in Colombia). “Gallo” means “rooster” or “cock” (the animal, not the vulgarity for the male sex organ). This expression is widely used throughout Colombia and Venezuela. It seems to have originated from the practice of cockfighting¹, but its exact origin is unknown. 

Imagine the disaster of this expression left as raw machine translation output popping up in the English subtitles of a Spanish language family-friendly movie. Of course, the MTPE editor would hopefully catch it, but these things can “slip through the cracks,” as they say. Also, as is the case with  countless other expressions, there’s no “quick fix” here, so an MTPE editor would have to erase the whole thing and write it from scratch. Why waste time plugging it into machine translation in the first place?

  1. ¿Se te corrió el champú?
Google Translate. Spanish: ¿Se te corrió el champú? English: Did the shampoo run?
DeepL Translator. Spanish: ¿Se te corrió el champú? English: Did your shampoo run? Alternatives: Did the shampoo run? Did your shampoo run out? Did the shampoo run out?

This is one of my favorite Colombian expressions. While it indeed literally means “has your shampoo run out?” it would be better translated as “are you out of your mind?” or “have you gone crazy?” The origin of this expression is unknown.

Another benefit human professional subtitle translators have over machine translation is the fact that they can actually see what’s happening onscreen. This is a very important aspect of audiovisual translation that I feel many people overlook. Audiovisual translation (or in laymen's terms, subtitle translation) is unique in that it is somewhat of a blend of translation (written transfer of language) and interpretation (verbal transfer of language). I will attempt to give a brief explanation of this phenomenon as I understand it.

First off, before the subtitle translation process begins, the audio of a given TV program or movie is transcribed into its original or source language. This is usually done (or at least should be done) by a native speaker of the source language who may or may not be a translator. Then, if and when translation is commissioned, a subtitle translator translates using that transcript as a template. However, most subtitle translators will almost always have the advantage of having access to the program’s original video and audio as well. 

These are resources machine translation engines are unable to use to produce their translations (that I am aware of, anyway). In fact, I find that watching previous episodes of the program I’m translating or even doing some research on it on Wikipedia gives me a better understanding of what’s happening. Watching characters’ facial expressions or even body language helps tremendously in understanding the emotions and intentions behind what they’re saying. Quite often, on-screen visual cues have a huge influence on the translation of a caption. For example, let’s say I was translating a telenovela and a character used the phrase from above, “¿Se te corrió el champú?” but on the off chance there actually was an empty bottle of shampoo physically present in the scene. This would let me know that a direct translation would be appropriate. Although machine translation may have also come up with an appropriate translation in such an instance, this would be entirely a fluke. Machine translation has no way of knowing how to make such a distinction, and it won’t be able to for a very long time

To wrap things up, the MTPE debate is as relevant today as it has ever been. While many translators are afraid that MT will take over their jobs, I am confident that subtitle translation is safe for now. As stated in the ATA’s recent open letter, there is not a shortage of talent out there, but rather our working conditions and pay rates may not be as great as those of other professionals working in the entertainment industry. In addition to having excellent proficiency in two or more languages, professional subtitle translators have to be up to date on the latest software and be able to meet tight deadlines for multiple clients to stay afloat. It is not an easy job by any means.

I take great pride in my work. I am eager to translate Spanish content into English in a smooth, idiomatic, and culturally relevant way that will resonate with English-speaking viewers. I am a trained translator with a Masters’s degree in Spanish Translation, so I have all the necessary technical and linguistic skills to get the job done. Most important of all, I am capable of breathing; of feeling; of loving; of hurting. Don’t make the same mistake Netflix did with Squid Game. Hire a professional subtitle translator who will give your foreign-language content the human touch it needs to be enjoyed worldwide.

  1.  Gossaín, Juan. “No Me Mame Gallo y Dígame Cuál Es El Origen De Esa Expresión.” El Tiempo, 18 June 2020, https://www.eltiempo.com/colombia/otras-ciudades/que-significa-la-expresion-mamar-gallo-y-de-donde-viene-508172.