How 'Give Us a Raise' Got Lost in Translation

Subtitle translators for films and TV once made a living wage, but the switch to contract work ended that; this week they went on strike.

Emil Salman

Translating subtitles for movies and television used to be a decent job, but over the past few decades, due to a shift that turned employees into “independent contractors,” that’s no longer the case. At the Israeli Subtitlers Union they reminisce about the good old days, 15 years ago, when translators made some 60 shekels ($17) an hour for their exacting work, about the average Israel wage.

Today, says the union, despite the rise in the cost of living the average translator earns 22 shekels an hour and will come away with around 4,000 shekels a month — less than minimum wage. The pricing is impossible to believe: 6.5 agorot per word.

This meager wage is so pitiable that the translation companies battle one another and are willing to take on work at rock-bottom prices, instead of having the translators work directly with the broadcasters such as the HOT cable company or the Yes satellite broadcaster.

In addition, translators often do not receive payment for their work for at least four months. The translation firms often go bankrupt due to the fierce competition, and translators must chase them down to get the money they earned over sleepless nights. The significant deterioration of wages has led many talented professionals to leave, and brought about the entry of many who have much more questionable language skills — which of course leads to embarrassing mistakes.

In February, about 100 translators who belong the union held a two-week warning strike, which led to a discussion of the issue in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee. But it was only a preliminary strike and not a full one at that, and the situation has not improved.

Starting Sunday night, the translators launched a full strike, with no end date in sight. The goal is to put a halt to our favorite TV series until the people who work so hard to translate them receive reasonable compensation.

“We have nothing to lose,” explains Yaniv Edelstein, who has worked as a translator for 15 years, including for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

It’s impossible to live on such a wage, he said — but he was very busy and in a hurry to finish a piece of work for the Queen Latifah show before the strike started.

How did the translators let the companies get away with eroding their wages so badly, I asked Aliza Friedman, the head of the union. “The translators did not know one another; everyone sat at home and translated at the same time the companies pushed the market down,” she said.

“They saw it was possible to play with prices and lower them. If I were a Knesset member with immunity from slander lawsuits, I would say it was almost a cartel.”

Friedman said she attended the meeting of the Economic Affairs Committee that MK Avishay Braverman called and he simply railed away at HOT and Yes.

The lowering of prices led many translators to leave the field, and those who remained are either too old or too desperate, she added. Friedman is retired from a career in high-tech and has a degree in physics. For her, translation is more of a hobby.

“I don’t live on it but enjoy it, but after I worked day and night, including Saturdays, holidays and Yom Kippur; it is a difficult feeling to bring home at the end of the month 4,000 shekels. We receive material on Friday and need to return it on Sunday morning, so we work Saturdays and don’t receive any additional [pay] for it,” she said.

On the Facebook page for the strike, translators report of threats from the studios not to work with them any more, and that they will hire strikebreakers. But Friedman is optimistic about the chances of success. “If we hold on, we have the ability of making a breakthrough,” she said.

The union is affiliated with the Histadrut labor federation, but because they are freelancers and not salaried employees the Histadrut has a hard time helping them. Friedman feels the Histadrut is not completely behind them. “For an organization of 100 people, it is not worth it for them to get into trouble with Yes and HOT. After we signed up and paid our dues, we discovered they have no mandate to represent freelancers.”

The demands are to raise wages back to where they once were, along with royalties on reruns and speeding up payments.

Israeli subtitlers are the worst-paid in the world, says Edelstein. One of the reasons is that 95 percent of the translators are women, and they are going on strike because they no longer have anything to lose, he said.

HOT said: “The company is not the address for the claims, but part of a number of bodies that order translation services. The salary conditions should be arranged appropriately between the studios and the translators. HOT will be willing to help and hopes the matter is settled quickly.”

Yes said: “The company uses the excellent services of the translators, and even met with them in the past. Nonetheless, the company does not work directly with the translators but only through translation companies which mange the employment conditions.”

Yes said it was in contact with the companies to make sure the work on its channels will continue without interruption, and hopes a solution will be found.
The Histadrut labor federation said it is not authorized to declare a strike by freelancers, but only for salaried employees.