Subtitle Writers Strike Scrambles Israeli TV
Mixed messages onscreen as English language translators demand fair pay
In season five of The Wire, Baltimore cop-turned high school teacher Roland Pryzbylewski stares at his class and asks a bizarre question.
“Which ass should I stick a rat into?”
Or sort of. In English he says, “who gives a rat’s ass?” but this particular Hebrew translation posted online has the teacher mangling the expression in a way that should probably see him lose his teaching license.
Mistranslated subtitles like this one have become increasingly common in Israel as a result of a television and film subtitle writers strike that has stretched on for several weeks, a number of striking workers say.
Israel is one of the few countries in Europe or the Middle East where English TV shows and movies are subtitled instead of dubbed—arguably one of the reasons English is more widely-spoken in Israel than in a number of European countries.
One of the strike organizers, who asked to remain anonymous, said that all of the 120 or so translators currently on strike work as freelancers without benefits, and that even if they work 60 to 70 hours a week, they’ll only make about NIS 6,500 (roughly $1,878) for their work, a paltry sum in today’s Israeli job market.
The veteran translator said that just like years ago, he still gets only about 400 shekels ($115) for a 90-minute action movie—and the same for something like a Woody Allen film that can take several days to finish.
“There’s enough English speakers in Israel for this to get really embarrassing. It’s going to become a deluge of mistakes,” he said.
An employee of a company contracted by Israeli cable giants YES and HOT to find subtitle writers, said that as the regular translators have gone on strike a number of fill-in freelancers have kept the translations coming, though as a native English speaker he said the difference is noticeable.
“Even with the supposedly good ones I see mistakes,” he said. He asked to remain anonymous as well because, as he put it, “this thing has gotten ugly, people are getting threats, blacklisted.”
He suggested anyone looking for a laugh should check out the Facebook pages lampooning Hebrew subtitles written for pirated copies of TV shows and movies online—unlike the cable networks’ offerings, he explained, those translations are usually done by hobbyists with poor English.
Translator Yaniv Eidelstein described having a great time writing Hebrew subtitles for The Wire, though he said it was also by far his hardest gig, with “slang you can’t even find on the internet, that’s only spoken on one block in Baltimore or something.”
He added that the prices translators are paid aren’t in keeping with the rates their counterparts outside Israel receive, and that they should probably be earning double what they currently make.
A spokesperson for Yes said that they “don’t work directly with the translators, rather, only through the translation companies that manage their work conditions. We are in contact with the companies and are working to ensure that the [translation] work on Yes channels will continue in an orderly fashion and we hope to quickly find a solution to please all sides.”
On Friday the translators plan to protest outside the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, where a gathering of visiting American TV producers will be held. A flyer they plan to hand out reads “The Best Programming Deserves The Best Subtitles! Support Fair Pay For Translators!” Luckily for the protesters, the flyer does not have any spelling errors or grammatical mistakes, the irony of which would probably not have been lost on their target audience.