Netflix inspires subscribers to embrace foreign-language content, look beyond subtitles and dubbing

Prahlad Srihari

November 16, 2018 19:14:00 IST

In its journey from a noun to a verb, Netflix has overthrown the traditional TV model and led a multi-generational shift in viewing habits. The incredibly prolific streaming giant continues to produce more and more original content in its efforts to cater to a wider demographic across the world — and, in the process, has become a more and more indispensable part of our weekly entertainment diet.

Narcos, as Ted Sarandos puts it, truly offered "the first flavour of what global television can be.”

Narcos, as Ted Sarandos puts it, truly offered "the first flavour of what global television can be.”

Building on its recent forays into Asian productions, Netflix announced 17 new original productions from India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand at the recently concluded content showcase event in Singapore. The firm hopes to provide local storytellers from the region a platform to market their content to a global audience.

“More than half of Asian content hours viewed on Netflix this year were viewed outside the region,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix. “So we have confidence that our upcoming slate of Asian productions will find fans in their home countries and abroad.”

While some content may still be watched largely by local audiences, titles like the Japanese anime series Aggretsuko and the Indian prestige drama Sacred Games have proved to be reliable exports and exemplified Netflix's international strategy: ‘Local story, global appeal.’

"Traditionally, you made something in Bollywood and the only place it worked was in India. Very few would see it outside (the country) because the distribution wasn't there. Now, two out of our three viewers who watched Sacred Games were outside India.  And it did really work in India. That's what we want to spread — that kind of storytelling for people who love it around the world," said Todd Yellin, vice president of Product, Netflix.

Netflix's non-English language series like 3%, Dark, Sacred Games and Money Heist have attracted a global audience

Netflix's non-English language series like 3%, Dark, Sacred Games and Money Heist have attracted a global audience

Netflix is leading the way when it comes to diversity in content by showing that being diverse requires more than just using bankable Hollywood directors and actors. By tapping local creators, writers, cast and production teams, it proves it values cultural authenticity and accuracy in its stories over pandering to the monolingual inclinations of most English speakers.

However, to cater to a global audience, it must consider the language and cultural barriers in consuming localised content and how to circumvent them. This brings us to what is an age-old, and ideological, battlefield — subtitles vs dubbing.

On one hand, subtitled media often conjures up stereotypes of self-important film geeks with a fetish for 'arty', pretentious foreign imports. On the other, dubbing was traditionally associated with jarring voice-overs in Italian pornography, Hong Kong martial arts films and Japanese anime.

In the case of Narcos, it is the subtitles that lends the show an air of authenticity. Produced by a French company (Gaumont), Narcos is a series set in South America, shot on location in Colombia and Mexico, featuring largely Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican stars, who predominantly speak in Spanish; yet, it is as popular in India as it is the world over. As Sarandos says, it truly offered "the first flavour of what global television can be.”

Narcos: Mexico premieres on 16 November on Netflix

Narcos: Mexico premieres on 16 November on Netflix

Now imagine if Pablo Escobar, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and Félix Gallardo had their fiery disputes and dealings in English, the viewing experience of Narcos would be dissonant to say the least. Take Escobar's chilling catchphrase "Plata o Plomo", which sounds snappy because of the alliteration which easily rolls off the tongue. However, its English translation "Silver or Lead" doesn't quite have the same effect though, does it?

However, for those who want a more passive viewing experience, watching subtitled media can seem like a lot of effort as it demands more concentration than they can afford. Reading lines and lines of text can lead to the viewer missing out on key action of a visually stunning and highly entertaining history lesson on show above it. So, watching dubbed media allows these viewers to focus more on the video and also allows those who usually multitask — while watching TV — as it doesn't demand their complete, undivided attention. "We have brought back the lost art of dubbing," claims Yellin, rather proudly.

Netflix's library of films and series, be it original or licensed, are available in multiple languages on the streaming service. "When we launched House of Cards (in 2013), it was available in seven languages. Now, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is available in 27," says Yellin.

Netflix has not only given a new lease of life to subtitles and dubbing but also offers viewers a third option — to watch dubbed media with subtitles. As Yellin notes, "If you want to watch Ghoul, you can watch it dubbed into English, watch it in Hindi with English subtitles or dubbed into English with English subtitles."

Netflix unveiled a total of 17 new made-in-Asia originals at the See What’s Next Asia event in Singapore.

According to Netflix, 45 percent of English speakers who watched the Indian horror miniseries in the US, UK, Canada and Australia watched it with dubs, 37 percent with subtitles and 18 percent used both. With Aggretsuko, 81 percent of the viewers from these English-speaking dubbing strongholds used, well, dubs.

Be it with subtitles or dubbing, it is impossible to accurately convey the meaning of the words from the source language as certain cultural references, idioms, nuances and jokes are often lost in translation. But Netflix has given us the next best thing and, in the process, captured the imagination of its subscribers across the world. By inspiring more and more viewers to move beyond their reluctance and resistance to use subtitles or dubbed audio, it has enabled them to embrace stories from different countries, languages and cultures like never before.

Updated Date: Nov 18, 2018 12:05 PM