The Volokh Conspiracy

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Netflix's "Better Than Us": Great Show, Lousy Subtitle Translation


My wife and I have been much enjoying Netflix's Better Than Us, a Russian import about near-future robots. (We've watched the first nine episodes, which is to say a bit more than half of the first season.) The topic has been covered before, of course, but it's all in the execution, and the execution here generally seems very good. The production quality is up to Western standard, it seems to me, as are the plot and the characterization.

The one problem that I've noticed is in the subtitles, which are often pretty poor translations of the original. They aren't laughable, to be sure, but they're often just not quite right. Naturally, I'm not insisting on literal translations; the point of the translation is to capture the sense and the tone of the dialogue, not to provide precise word-for-word identity. And of course there are judgment calls: The Russian title of the series, for instance, is literally "Better Than People," but "Better Than Us" is a plausible English rendering.

But some of the subtitle translations just change the meaning, and not for the better. In one episode, for instance, the Russian word for "bitter" is translated as "gross," when later on one of the plot elements turns precisely on the thing being bitter. And I see that every several minutes, in each episodes. It may well be that non-Russian-speakers just won't notice, but I do think something is lost. And Russian is not exactly an exotic language; how hard is it for Netflix to find a decent translator?