Word Limits: Language, Labor, and Love in a Neoliberal Visual World

An exploration into shifts in subtitling practice in an era of worldwide streaming. Over the last two decades, digital subtitling technologies have transformed how subtitles are conceived, created, and consumed.  The digital has meant a new “consumer-level” access to subtitling technologies, redefining who gets to create subtitles.   Recent scholarship, especially addressing fansubs of Japanese anime, has tended to celebrate these changes as part of an increasingly democratic media environment. However, this democracy has its flip side.  It has also changed the ways localization, captioning, and subtitling companies employ longtime subtitle practitioners. New kinds of alienated subtitling labor are emerging, where subtitlers work, often in unknown tandem, on digital content held in the virtual backlots of media conglomerates.  In this presentation, I examine film & TV subtitling and captioning practices to consider how new industry heavyweights—Netflix, for example—usher in a streaming-based subtitling regime organized according to neo-Taylorist metrics. This new regime repeats the neoliberal logic of the “sharing” economy.  Rather than a democratic space of new media, the new industry structure of metric-driven language labor poses challenges at the level of craft and of livelihood for visual translators today. I also signal strategies for an alternative subtitling future.