Netflix figured out how to translate a talk show into 20 languages in just 24 hours

The World in Words

Last May, Netflix launched comedian Chelsea Handler’s latest project, "Chelsea." They declared the half-hour program, which airs three times a week, the world's first "global talk show."

What makes it so "global," in the eyes of the Netflix marketers? More than the content, it's the show's rapid translation. Subscribers around the world can stream the English broadcasts with subtitles offered in a whopping 20 different languages. With three tapings a week getting turned around for quick broadcast, that meant Netflix had to invent a new translation system.  

We're in this interesting moment in media. The internet has made communicating with others across the globe easy and instant. But despite all the chatter about the global rise of English, the Tower of Babel still stands. The world remains multilingual, and not always translated.

During the era of silent film, many thought that medium would be the language that would unite us all. Directors like Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith imagined silent film would be perfect for bringing the world together. This week on the podcast we go back to the 1920s to examine what happened when sound entered the picture. And, we learn more about how Netflix translated "Chelsea" at a rapid rate — while making sure the jokes stayed funny.

Podcast Contents

00:00 In May, Netflix launched "Chelsea" a thrice-weekly “global talkshow.” And to do that Netflix had to figure out, how do you translate a talkshow comedy into 20 languages in under 24 hours?

00:45 Let’s go back in time to October, 1927

1:00 Al Jolson opened his mouth in "The Jazz Singer" and the world was forever changed 

1:45 When Al Jolson opened his mouth in "The Jazz Singer," what was lost?

2:00 “Visual Esperanto” was a turn of phrase that I first heard from Priya Jaikumar a film professor at the University of Southern California

2:25 "Babel and Babylon" by Miriam Hansen

2:40  The concept of “Visual Esperanto” bubbles up at an interesting time in the US, right as America is in the midst of an immigration explosion.

4:08 Charlie Chaplin believed silent film was an elevated art form.

4:55 Bruce Lawton is a film historian, archivist, and all out silent film geek. Before sound, he says silent films were easily sent around the globe.

6:53 Laurel & Hardy did several talkies in multiple langauges

8:06 In Hollywood, many actors, especially many foreign actors with accents could not transcend sound 

9:30 The tragic story of silent film star Karl Dane

11:08 It wasn’t just Hollywood reeling from the transition to sound. There were holdouts around the globe. Like the Benshi in Japan.

12:44 Charlie Chaplin, the great silent film hold out, is attributed with making the last Hollywood studio silent picture, "Modern Times" 

14:51 Chaplin continues to thumb his nose at sound and language in his first talkie, "The Great Dictator"

16:36 Tracy Wright is the director of global content operations at Netflix. Her group developed the translation system used to turn around translation for Chelsea thrice-weekly in under 24 hours.

18:00 Wright explains the process of “re-speaking”

19:23 It gets tricky when translating culturally specific jokes

20:00 How do you know the humor is translating?

21:30 Here’s a new challenge, Netflix. Why not team up with Waverly Labs and develop a real-life Babel fish?

23:20 Laurel and Hardy in German

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