The International Multilingual User Group (IMUG) meets monthly in Silicon Valley to share the latest in linguistics and technology. This month was hosted at Netflix, who provided insight into how their localization team handles scaling to meet the needs for their global audiences. Their presentation, Creative Localization at Scale, was a tour de force by one of the world’s leading media brands, delivered to a live, fully-engaged, packed audience in a theater at the Netflix corporate campus.

Two hundred people had registered for the event. Netflix even had courtesy buses shuttle attendees to the conference from as far away as San Francisco. The line stretched out into the parking lot yet Netflix and IMUG staff did a great job processing everyone as quickly as possible.

The reception prior to (and after) the presentation was a lively and vital networking opportunity. A chance to meet colleagues and make new acquaintances. The spread was pretty awesome too! We were glad to meet staffers from Netflix, friends from Cloudwords, current students of the Middlebury Institute, and many others.

As the sun set, the crowd shuffled into the auditorium, where Joe Katz took the traditional photo of the crowd and gave an abbreviated liturgy of the history and activities of IMUG. He also gave an update on IMUG’s agenda for the rest of 2017 with future events at Adobe (May and September) and Google (June and July).

At that point, Joe turned events over to the Netflix cast. And by cast, take it to mean Netflix had a huge turnout of their own staff for the event.

Getting Down to Business

Katell Jentreau, Localization Language Manager (front, right) and Meredith Wright, Localization Manager (back, left at podium) led the first part of the presentation, which put forward the scale and scope of work Netflix faces daily, and the mission-oriented attitude their team takes to meet their challenges.

Netflix does not conduct incremental or phased rollouts of content. Each of their 300 original shows have one global launch directly into 190 countries in 25 languages, for 100 million members.

Everything has to be prepared up-front and ready to go, in all languages, for a worldwide premiere.

Each of these impressive numbers is up dramatically. Their new milestone of 100 million subscribers is up +40% from the 70.8 million they reported in December 2015. The number of countries they are available in tripled in January 2016, from 60 to 190. It is a +25% increase from the 20 languages they supported in July 2016. And 300 original series is an increase of +125% over 133 they offered a year ago (May 2016).

In terms of global impact, nearly half of Netflix viewers are from outside the United States, and this proportion will increase. For instance, they added 5 million subscribers in Q1 2017, of which 3.5 million (70%) are international. Netflix corporate strategy doesn’t just include localization — Netflix relies on it. As CEO Reed Hastings said in 2016, “You are witnessing the birth of a global TV network.”

So what is required to achieve that mission? Everything, from UI/UX localization, to the data and metadata. All the ads, all the promotional copy. Dubbing or subbing the content itself. Even to the help files and customer service operations.

Netflix UI/UX

Fergal Meade, Quality Engineering Manager (left) and Waseem Daoud, Localization Quality Control Engineer (right) took over the next portion of the presentation, which focused on the methodology Netflix employs for their UI/UX localization.

The basic user interface internationalization needed to look and feel the same, including non-Latin languages such as Korean (left) and right-to-left (RTL) texts like Arabic (right).

Every splash screen has to be adapted for language, keeping the same brand look, such as the spectrum within the logo for the original series Abstract: The Art of Design.

And what is true for the television-based interface is similarly true for the mobile app, with the additional constraint of a smaller footprint to work within. Here you can see English side-by-side with the same in Japanese.

Content ratings also need to be globalized. In this example, you have the U.S. (left) and Korean (center) ratings next to those of the Netherlands (right). In the U.S., it is marked for age-appropriateness: 18 or older. In Korea, it says “청불” (Cheong-bul), which literally means “Blue Light,” but is more appropriately rendered “Red Light” or “Adults Only”.

Because of the difference of cultural and law, the age range is different in the Netherlands. Plus there are extra graphic icons to show content such as a fist representing violence and a yelling person depicting strong language.

Repeatedly the Netflix team emphasized a strong requirement the localization team have full access to watch and understand the content, and to know the local markets they were operating in, to know how to manage it for global releases.

Speaking of age-appropriate content, age is taken into serious consideration at Netflix. How you translate content for a kid in France (left) will differ in language from a French adult, and the same for a Japanese child (right) compared to a Japanese adult. Also notice the recommendations differ country-to-country based on local market demands.

Original Content in Global Languages

The next two presenters were María Fernanda Ramírex (right) and Paolo Scopacasa (left), who spoke about the translation of Netflix’ Original Series. (My apologies for getting María with her eyes closed!)

Not only does Netflix need to prepare online marketing materials, but even physical display ads, such as this TrollHunters campaign, for a LatAm mall (note “Diciembre”).

When localizing its campaigns for Stranger Things, conspicuously set in 1983, they even reached back into the nostalgia of the popular culture of their markets, for instance, recruiting Mexico’s leading UFOlogist, Jaime Maussan (below left), and the iconic children’s show host Xuxa (famous across Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America) to pitch the show.

Netflix does all this work with a relatively lean team of 15 people internally, but a network of freelancers and vendor partners around the world on five continents.

The tools they have to do their work run the gamut from industry-standard solutions to homegrown internal tools, such as a Key Names & Phrases (KNP) database and Title Localization Tool.

The entire Netflix team took the stage at the end of the evening to answer questions. The discussion was pretty lively and ranging.

  • Crowdsourcing: Right now Netflix provides translations for 25 languages. What about other “long-tail” languages? Crowdsourcing could be used, but integrity of the content is paramount. It wouldn’t be the first time Netflix experimented with the idea (see this article from 2012 on crowdsourcing closed captioning).
  • Subjectivity of content: Netflix relies on local market knowledge from its constellation of freelancers and vendors for cultural context and market knowledge. They also look to each country’s marketing team. And, of course, they also have to watch the shows to determine author intent. Context is built up over the course of one or more seasons.
  • What’s next: Now that Netflix is in so many countries, there is still plenty of room for growth. 100 million subscribers is still a far cry from, say, Twitter’s 328 million, YouTube’s over 1 billion, and Facebook’s nearly 2 billion. But to be more specific, the team said that in each market, there is plenty of room for more original series.
  • What about Machine Translation? It would be appropriate for more straightforward content: help files, technical and less-creative content. While the folks at Netflix didn’t rule it out, it did not seem to be a top priority for their current business.
  • Dubbing or Subbing (subtitling)? This definitely sparked interest on the Netflix’ team behalf. There are still markets, such as France, where dubbing (matching voiceover replacement dialog to the mouth movement of characters) is considered more appropriate and desirable than subtitling. For Netflix, they want to accommodate and follow those market expectations, rather than be prescriptive.
  • A young and budding translation student asked about how to prepare for a career at Netflix. In response, a Netflix manager replied that the company only hires experienced linguists, so it would not likely be her first job out of college. But she also suggested the student look at, and truly take to heart, Netflix’ culture and values. Fortunately, there is plenty of public information on Netflix’ culture of freedom and responsibility going back over its history. From this famous 124-page 2009 Slideshare deck, to this FastCompany interview with Patty McCord from last year.
  • How long did it get ready for all aspects of their global rollout? About 7-8 months, including re-engineering to accommodate right-to-left languages.
  • Pivot languages: Yes. Everything (most often) goes through English as a pivot language.

A 420-Themed Send-off

Because it was the 20th of April, and this was northern California, the team at Netflix left us with one last video to close. It was a promotional video for a new Netflix Original Series that will soon be debuting: Kathy Bates starring in Disjointed.

As ever, IMUG did not disappoint in terms of the depth of its topic or the breadth and scope of impact that localization and globalization are having on media and technology. Thanks to all the folks at Netflix who were willing to take us behind the scenes.

Speaking of behind the scenes, the next IMUG meeting is scheduled for 18 May 2017, on Localization Testing at Adobe. Hope to see you there!

And for those of you who want to be able to recreate your own model of globalization success, if you need a partner on your adventures, make sure to email us here at [email protected], and let us know how you’d like to grow your own brand and business.

Disclaimer: This blog is for the benefit of the community, and does not reflect any professional relationship between Netflix and e2f.