Localizing for the Netflix Effect

Localizing for the Netflix Effect
June 21, 2017
Netflix recently launched service to 130 countries simultaneously, It's the most aggressive localization push in history, and it's great news for translators. Tune in to hear how Netflix is changing the way companies communicate with global customers--one by one. 
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Renato Netflix has embarked on the most aggressive localization effort in history. In 2016, Netflix launched a service to 130 countries simultaneously. Everywhere in the world. This is unprecedented. Really!

It’s one thing to localize a website or an app, even for a service that is available virtually on any device that has an internet connection. It’s another thing to translate and subtitle or dub millions of hours of TV shows and movies, including original series, documentaries and feature films.

Netflix is a company that is known for its innovation and amazing management style. If you haven’t read Reed Hastings’ presentation on SlideShare about freedom and responsibility, I strongly recommend that you take a look at that, because it’s a management class in 164 slides, or something like that.

In this show, Michael talks to someone responsible for user experience at Netflix. And she shares with us the challenges of preparing the framework for launching such an amazing effort. One of the things that we need to keep in mind is when we’re calling this episode the Netflix Effect. Occasionally, in the history of our industry of localization, a company launches a product that has a major impact in volumes.

In 2006, Microsoft launched Vista, and we talked about the Vista Effect at that time. Everybody had to change the base code of their software, and that required completely new localizations.

There were not enough translators in the market to do that kind of work. Now, Netflix is doing the same thing. They’re flooding the market, and they need good, quality translators to do their job. Let’s listen to the interview.
Katell My name is Katell, Katell Jentreau. If you pronounce it the French way it’s Katell Jentreau [with French accent]. I have been in localization and globalization for the past twenty plus years. I started on the vendor side as a translator and then manager of translators for many years in the UK, and then I came to the US about six years ago, and I switched to the buyer side. I have been with Netflix for about a year and a half, and here I am a language manager. I manage a team of in house language specialists and I am part of the globalization team at Netflix, which deals with pretty much anything localization- and globalization-related that is not subtitles and dubbing. So, anything on the product, the UI, all the meta data, all the help, all the marketing and PR and all those kinds of stuff, that’s us doing that.
Michael So, just at a high level. How has the job at Netflix been different from other roles that you’ve had?
Katell Prior to Netflix I was with Box for three and a half years, and this was a really interesting gig because, although everything was done on a small scale, it was, I had a lot of decision power within my small team of ‘me’ for a while, and then I had another person and a few engineers who we used to work very closely. So, here it’s a much larger team. The means are very different; the budgets and the scale of everything is much, much larger. That said, I think there is still this kind of, for lack of a better word, this start up feel to it, where you can try things, and if it doesn’t work, then you change it, then you try it again, and there’s a lot of freedom. I mean Netflix is known for this. The whole freedom and responsibility. It is not just a thing that you put on a deck; it’s a real thing. That’s been great. I kind of had that a little bit at Box, but on a much smaller scale, and here it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes because you are like ‘oh really, I can decide this, is that okay?’, but yes. But, you also work with a much larger team. Our team is 50 to 60 people, so it’s a much bigger scale, and the company, of course, and the global is on a much bigger scale if that means anything. It’s truly to be truly global.
Michael I’ve heard it referred to as an achiever’s culture at Netflix. That whole responsibility, plus accountability and freedom tied together in that it’s all about delivery.
Katell It is yes.
Michael And you guys have done that recently. It’s like, suddenly, you had this global expansion into, was it a 105, or 120 countries?
Katell So, in January 2016 the product was already available in about 30 countries, and wherever it was available, the local language was also available. So, Latin America and the UK and Ireland, but also France and Germany and Spain and Japan, the Benelux/Nordic countries. That was about 30 countries in total, and then in January 2016 we basically flipped a switch, and we added about 130 countries to that.
Michael Oh wow.
Katell So, basically, Netflix, all of a sudden was available anywhere in the world, apart from China and a handful of countries where we are not allowed to do business, like Syria and, I think, North Korea. At that time, we added four new languages which were not easy languages. We added the two Chinese, Korean and Arabic at the same time, and I joined the company about a couple of months before the global launch, which we refer to as ‘the global launch’.
Michael Yes, and it was a remarkable accomplishment, not every country had a distinct language, there were some launches that remained in English. Were there any other default languages that you used, or are using in other regions right now?
Katell Well, pretty much any language that is available in our UI you can choose, so let’s say, if you’re in Russia, and you want to watch Netflix, Russian is not currently supported. The default would probably be English, but you can set it to another language if you want. You can set it to Polish; you can set it to French; you can set it to any other of the 23 languages that we support, and as we add language support, then you will get it. So, just very recently we launched Thai support, so usually we have some PR and marketing effort around it to say, “if you guys have been watching Netflix in Thailand, now you can also watch it in Thai, and you can use the product in Thai, and you will have a lot more subtitling and dubbing options as well in the contents”.
Michael One of the things that your team is responsible for, because it’s not just the marketing and the sign up and the workflows and the titles, also the online keyboards for each one of these. I mean, that is a huge product advancement?
Katell Yes, I wish I could take credit for this, but that’s our awesome ITN Team, Tim Brandall and his team have been really, really fantastic at supporting all the different keyboards that we do. Every time we plan a new language launch date, that’s the first thing that they look into as part of the internationalization effort. So, it’s been, you know, with some languages, more difficult than others, but yes, we have that for a TVUI and then all the devices that we support, pretty much.
Michael Yes, well the Netflix team presented at the Bay Area Users Group, IMUG, for International Machine Users Group, and they showed some of the pictures, and their online keyboards are, actually, works of art. They are beautiful.
Katell Yes, they are pretty cool.
Michael I was really shocked.
Katell Yes, we do spend some time, and we get, of course, the input from the linguists, and we test and re-test and, yes, a lot of work goes into these.
Michael Now, when you are working at this kind of scale, are people enough?
Katell Are you asking me if we are doing MT as well?
Michael Well, MT may be one part of it. Maybe there are other options, too.
Katell So, okay automation, for sure. Automation needs to be there. You cannot do scale without automation. There is only so much you can do by throwing bodies at the work, and we are definitely trying to move away from that. So, we have been building automations in the workflow and the tools to support the workflow. We are building our own localization platform, which includes all the workflow bits and also an editor and also connects to the different tools that we use internally at Netflix, which allows people to gain access to the right content that they need and the right context that they need, especially when you do creative localization, context is everything. I mean, it is usually the case for translation, but especially when it’s creative. We do give quite a lot of freedom to our translators for creative translation, but they do need that context. So, we are building that, and that’s an effort that is happening on the translation side, the PM side and the QC side all over, and we are trying to really have a unified approach. On the MT front, we are exploring options, and we are currently doing some tests with several engines, but so far in the product and the life product, we are not using it, so it’s really at the piloting/testing stage that we are. There are some obvious candidates for us (the help content for instance), but we are also exploring other options.
Michael So, you achieved this remarkable number of countries to be launched in with people. Does Netflix source that themselves?
Katell So, yes and no, it’s a mix. I think originally we were working mostly with one vendor, and then when we hired (and this was before my time), internal language specialists, they were given the mandate to just build their team. So, they started hiring hand-picked freelancers, and they built teams around that working very closely with these people. As the volume grew, there was a need for more, so some of the content was sent to vendors because it was a little more flexible, and they could do more volume as well. And then for some of the languages we went directly to vendors because we didn’t have language specialists. For scalability, we couldn’t hire somebody for each of the languages that we launched after that. So, currently we have a mix of vendors which are MLVs and SLVs, but also freelancers, and we give the freedom to our language specialists to choose whatever they feel is best for their language. So, if historically it’s been a language that’s been working only with freelancers, some of our language specialists said, “you know that part there, I’d like to try that vendor; they have done some pretty good jobs, and I would be quite happy for them to do that work”. Or the other way around, we have had people who have worked mostly with vendors, but they say, “you know what, for that area, it’s really highly specialized. I know a couple of really good freelancers who could do a really good job with that”. So, if that’s the case, they can go and hire those people.
Michael Yes, sounds like a very dynamic offering.
Katell Yes, we are really trying to get what is best for that language and that market. We have the luxury of being able to do that. I do realize that this is not a given in a lot of companies, so we really embrace that and use that as much as we can.
Michael Yes, and is the testing with MT just being another option that your language owner would have an opportunity to use if they are comfortable with it, or they feel like it applies?
Katell Yes, so that’s one of the approaches we are taking. We also, some of the measurements that we are doing right now, you would not as a translator, you would not even see the suggestion from the MT, but we will still measure the difference between what you came up with eventually and what the MT came up with. So, we are doing a bit of both. It’s really exploratory for the time being.
Michael Yes. That’s awesome, and it’s cool to hear about those tests. We look forward to hearing what you guys learn in that.
Katell Yes, they should be, if it’s chosen, there should be a session at LocWorld in November in Santa Clara.
Michael Yeah, Netflix has had a culture of transparency in this area. You guys released the subtitling tool years ago, Open Source, and it’s great the way you have shared what your learnings have been, and the openness, that’s a really great part of the Netflix culture. The other piece that I love is that this aggressive approach towards, or at least from the outside it looks aggressive to go into all these countries as announced by Reed Hastings, your CEO. I mean he has a lot of things he can talk about, and this was making front line news, and it’s actually brought the international element for you guys, for your competitors, to be really prominent.
Katell Yes.
Michael I know how many languages Amazon Video is in. I know it, and there is this great competition going on now, and consumers really seem to be winning. Can you talk about what it’s like to work in that culture, and what it means when the CEO is saying, “Yeah we’re going to be in 100 countries.:
Katell Yes, it was pretty big news, so I’m glad that Reed did that, and not us. Yes, it was a bit announcement, and the fact that Netflix is truly global is one …, no, probably the main reason why I came here. Having international and global issues and challenges being at the top of the priorities for a company, you don’t need to explain at Netflix why international users are important. If you look at the last results that we have, quarterly results, our new users come in the journey now from international markets, so it is a really great benefit, and it’s very, very exciting for localizers generally, because you feel that what you do matters, and it’s not always the case, you know. We all believe that what we do matters, but having it confirmed by the top people in your company and by, generally, the way that the company behaves and communicates externally is fantastic for us, for sure.
Michael So, you have to have some stories, because our listeners love stories, and it can be positive or challenging, whichever. What stories are you guys telling? Lessons learned, or things you were surprised about with this big accomplishment?
Katell Ah, stories, it’s hard. It’s really hard because everything moves very quickly, and you have to adapt constantly, and you may think “you’ve got to start working on these languages now”, and then next week, “oh no, you know what, let’s hold off on these”, and generally we try; we have had a broad approach in the sense that we have launched all these countries at the same time and a lot of languages, but we know that we have to learn a lot on each of the markets that we are going into, especially when we add the language support because all of a sudden we tell people “okay, we are really paying attention to you, so come and see us but we are going to be paying attention, we are going to be investing in your market as well”. The language bit is only part of it. Of course, I know very well that people come to Netflix, not because they have a localized UI; they come to Netflix because of the content. We are an enabler. We make it easier for people, and we make it possible for some of them to actually understand what they are looking at and use the product.

But, people know Netflix because of ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Stranger Things’, not because we localize UI. So, we are very mindful of this, and we also keep learning again, all the time, what people want for a particular market. The scale of it makes it difficult to be very fast, but also very precise in what we do, and that’s the challenge of a lot of the things we do. We had, last year, a time where in Korea, it was pointed out, not very subtly, by a Korean journalist that the font that we were using in our artwork was not appropriate and was not good enough—and this was pointed out to our CEO in a press conference, so it wasn’t great.

It wasn’t great for us in localization, and we learned from this and we said “ok, we need to be better at communicating from within the localization team, because we knew this, but we probably didn’t communicate it well enough,” and then we worked to find better resources and better things to do and improved the quality. These are some of the things that we have to be mindful of. We know as localizers that the different cultures demand different things. We know that in Japan people want a lot of local content, and we are working a lot to building that, and from a localization standpoint, we have just gone through a whole exercise to, for instance in our kids space, to adapt the terminology that we use, because we realized, from feedback from users, we did some surveys which we call ‘quals’, and we had people sit with children, for instance, and show them how to use the product, and we realized that some of the words we were using were not understood by the children, so we had to change our approach to some of it. We try to be humble in the way that we tackle it. We have very good people working everywhere in all the different areas, but there is always more to learn from the users as well. And we are lucky that we are a company that is very much data-driven.

We get a lot of data from the product. We can see how people use the product, what they watch on the product, and we get a lot of feedback this way, and the feedback we don’t get from the product used, we can get it by going directly to the user and asking them about how they use the product and what they would like. So it’s great from our standpoint because we get that direct feedback. More than just tweets, which we also pay attention to. But, you know, we get all the data that we can get, and even with all the data, sometimes you get it wrong, but we do our best, we really do.
Michael Well, and it’s getting it wrong quickly, I think is one of the things I see from Netflix in this space is that the shows that don’t quite deliver tend to disappear very quickly.
Katell Disappear?
Michael Well, they are not as prominent. Maybe I just stop looking at them?
Katell Maybe!
Michael But there are things that come to the forefront in my awareness much faster so…
Katell Yes, but keep in mind that we release a lot of content.
Michael Yes.
Katell We have released probably to date over three hundred originals, and that’s just the original content.
Michael That’s mind blowing.
Katell I know, tell me about it. So, what you personally see as Michael, on the service, is not going to be what your friend is going to see. Not even your spouse in the same household. Hopefully, not what your children are seeing.
Michael Yes.
Katell So, you know, just because there is some stuff that you didn’t like, a lot of other users across the world really enjoy it, and it’s really this customization that makes Netflix special as well. So what you see this week, there will be some content that we promote more heavily than others, of course. Our big titles are promoted across the board, and then per market we will tailor this. If you go to Asia or if you go to Europe, they will focus, I mean they are the big ones, ‘The Crown’ and ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’, but there is a lot of other content that they will tailor their marketing campaigns around, and you may have, for instance in Spain, we have just launched our first Spanish original, ‘Las Chicas Del Cable’, and this was heavily promoted in Spain, of course, but not so much in the U.S. I mean it was still there, and you could still see it, but you were probably not that aware of it. If you lived in Spain, you would be aware of it, I’m telling you.
Michael I think even as you just bring up, because I feel like I start to get my mind around the complexity of what you guys are doing, you look at an original like ‘Narcos’, which is both in English and Spanish, and then to think about, well, what subtitles are you choosing in that, and a decision as small as that, and you start talking about releases that I don’t even know about in Spain.
Katell Yes, there you go.
Michael And I’m, like, “Whoa, it is so complex”, the world; it’s has definitely pushed the limits of what I think most people think about in our industry.
Katell Yes, I think you’re right. The scale of it is much larger than anything that I certainly have been involved in before,and it’s kind of mind blowing sometimes, yes.
Michael So Renato, as you can hear from this first conversation, there is so much to be covered about Netflix.
Renato Well, Netflix has a monumental impact in the industry, and as I said in the beginning, there is going to be an increase in demand for this type of talent. And the talent that is able to subtitle—it’s an art, Michael. It’s not as simple as doing text translation. You need to have in mind the timing. You need to know how to summarize content. You need to be able to be concise and clear at the same time.
Michael Could this be an area that saves the industry from automation?
Renato Well, I’ve heard the company saying that they have automated solutions for that, but you see, the beauty of Netflix…what I like to say is that it’s one thing to subtitle technical content, because technical content is about nouns. You translate nouns, and nouns are easy. There is an equivalency.

But when you’re translating art, you’re translating adjectives, and adjectives are hard because they convey emotions, and they change order. Depending on their order that one adjective is in the sentence, it gives emphasis or not. And being able to play with this is much harder than doing a technical video. So I would say Netflix is a way to protect the business, yes, you’re right.
Michael Yeah.
Renato So another point, like our public service announcement here, is that Netflix is recruiting translators. They’ve developed a platform that is open to anybody, to individuals, to companies to use it, to test. It’s called Hermes, and if you, our listener is interested in visiting it, the URL is [tests.hermes.nflx.io](). I’m going to repeat that, [tests.hermes.nflx.io](). And here’s the thing, Michael, this test is very hard.
Michael I think we need to do an episode of you doing the test. I think that would be a blast.
Renato I’m afraid I might fail that, but one of the interesting things that I heard is that professional translators were criticizing when Netflix announced that their platform was open for anybody to take the test. And then when the professional translators went there and took the test and failed, they said “wow, if somebody passes this test, they’re really good. “
Michael They’re great.
Renato So here’s the challenge to you, listener. Go take the test, and tell us how you did.
Renato Alright, this has been Globally Speaking, and thank you guys for listening.

End of conversation

Katell Jentreau

Katell Jentreau is Regional Globalization Manager (Latam & APAC at Netflix. She is a localization and globalization professional with 10+ years of experience working for global leaders in localization products and services (SDL International) and media and web development products (Yahoo! Inc.).

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