Lost, in Translation: The Internet's Subtitle Underground
"I want Ali G Indahouse …in Icelandic!"
"URGENT: I need episode 7 of Prison Break in Norwegian."
"Hunting for 30 Rock in Brazilian Portuguese. And not fake!"
Thanks to online file sharing, such pleas are more and more common on the Net. American movies and TV shows are available all over the world — often within hours of their US broadcast. (Just fire up BitTorrent in Bangladesh, Belgium, or Bolivia.) But there's one big problem: The shows are in English. That's where people like Pablo Díaz come in.
For the entire first season of Gossip Girl, the CW's must-see teen drama, Díaz had a Wednesday-morning routine. An IT worker in Madrid, Díaz performed the thankless and tedious task of creating Spanish subtitles for the show. For free. "I wanted to watch Gossip Girl in my own language," Díaz says. He's young — just 25 — and his self-designed lime green T-shirt stands out against the all-white tables and chairs of the café where we meet. His introduction to the world of subtitling sprang from infatuation: a crush on Kristen Bell, whose sly voice-over opens each episode of the series. Christening himself "Gossip Boy," Díaz launched a fan site, complete with subtitled episodes.
His technique was simple: Download the show, along with English subtitles posted on a Chinese site with mysterious rapidity. (Some purists prefer to translate directly from the audio track, Díaz explains, though working from those subtitles is easier.) Title-making software embedded his Spanish translation in the video. Then it was ready to upload. Typically, it took Díaz a few days to complete an episode, though his rivalry with an Argentine Gossip Girl subtitler often drove him to work more quickly.
Given the amount of effort involved, Díaz's motivations may seem pretty modest. "I like languages," he says, "and it was a good way to practice my English." He was even able to handle the show's slangy chatter — usually. Phrases like hedge fund and kicking ass sent him scrambling for a dictionary. He certainly wasn't in it for the gratitude. "No one ever writes to thank you, although they complain if you take too long getting the next episode up," he says. "And no one ever says, 'You did a great job getting that phrase right.'"
Like other online obsessives, translators band together. Lilia Carone, a 38-year-old Italian with a PhD in English literature, got her start in 2004 translating The Best of Youth, an Italian miniseries, into English. These days, she also helps run Subscene.com, a hub for torrent subtitlers and videos translated into everything from Danish to Turkish. The hottest language: Arabic. Demand is so great that at least one Syrian translator, Tarafa Alkaddah, can actually earn an illicit living off popular US movies and TV shows. Using English that he says he learned watching television, Alkaddah creates Arabic-subbed versions and sells them to distributors in Damascus and Saudi Arabia. Censors or no, the DVDs show up in markets throughout the Middle East. It's cultural subversion, one episode of Everybody Loves Raymond at a time.