Squid Game subtitles and dubbing prompt online debate over Netflix’s translation

Netflix’s translation of the hit series Squid Game from Korean into English has sparked online controversy, with some Korean speakers arguing important meaning is lost in the dubbed and subtitled versions of the show.

Squid Game is about a cohort of indebted people entering a high-stakes survival game on a remote island in the hope of winning a huge cash prize.

The nine-part thriller, released last month on Netflix, has become the most popular show in more than 90 countries and may become the streaming service’s most watched program ever.

But some say non-Korean speaking audiences are missing out on the richness of the original dialogue and key aspects of character development.

New York-based comedian Youngmi Mayer is among those criticising Netflix’s translation on Twitter.

“If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show,” she wrote.

“[The] translation was so bad. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved.”

Mayer made a TikTok video highlighting particular scenes from Squid Gamein one case saying the vulgar dialogue of a character named Han Mi-nyeo had been toned down.

“Instead of saying, ‘What are you looking at?’, [Han Mi-nyeo] says, ‘Go away,'” Mayer said of the English captions.

“Almost everything she says is being botched, translation wise.”

A person in a pink outfit with a triangle on their black mask holds a gun.
Squid Game is being compared to Hunger Games and Battle Royale.(Supplied: Netflix)

But another Twitter user, who uses by the handle Seoulocello, said they were “incredibly frustrated” by how the TikTok video had “spread the false notion that Squid Game is horribly translated”.

“The subtitles are just fine, and I say this as a native Korean speaker,” they said.

Seoulocello said Mayer’s criticisms were directed at the closed captions, which reflected the dialogue of the English-dubbed version of Squid Game, whereas the English subtitles were closer to the original Korean dialogue.

Closed captions assume the audience cannot hear audio so they include other aspects of the soundtrack apart from the dialogue, such as descriptions of the background music, sound effects or other audio cues.

Dialogue in closed captions is therefore necessarily more concise than subtitles.

The ‘untranslatable’ makes differences inevitable

Jinhyun Cho, a senior lecturer in translation and interpreting at Macquarie University’s department of linguistics, said while there were some “minor omissions” in Squid Game, Netflix’s translation of Korean programs was “overall, very good”.

“From my experience, it’s much more complicated than one translator’s competency,” she said.

Dr Cho said there was no such thing as a perfect translation, and differences in dialogue were unsurprising because many words, phrases or concepts were “untranslatable” from one language to another.

“It’s not limited to English and Korean, but between English and Japanese, or even between Korean and Chinese,” she said.

“There are always things that can’t be translated perfectly.”

A woman smiles for the camera against a blank background
Jinhyun Cho says many Korean concepts cannot be directly translated into English.(Supplied)

For example, Korean culture dictates that people call each other by honorifics (rather than by name), depending on age, gender and social status.

“People don’t refer to each other by name in Korea unless you are close friends and of the same age,” Dr Cho said.

“There is an age-based hierarchy, so someone who is even a year older than you, if you call that person by his or her name, then it is extremely rude.

“You need to use a title … to express respect. Often in Korean dramas, there is a certain title that a younger man should use for an older man, and vice versa.

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YOUTUBESquid Game | Official Trailer | Netflix

For some, the global appeal of Squid Game shows that universal themes explored in K-drama can cut through niche, culturally specific references.

“Similar to the story of the film Parasite, the universal theme of social inequality caused by capitalism … may have quickly immersed people all over the world in the story of Squid Game,” Jihee Kim, director of the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney, said.

“People are already familiar with the sort of ‘death game’ genre. Nonetheless, I believe that the addition of Korean-style variations to the drama is one of the factors driving the global craze.

“Traditional Korean games like Ddakji-chigi game, dalgona game and beads game, which are friendly to Koreans but can be new to foreigners, appear to be appealing to Western audiences as well.”

A 3-metre tall doll from the series Squid Game stands in a shopping centre
The imagery of Squid Game is terrifying in any language.(Reuters: Eloisa Lopez)

‘Konglish’ enters the Oxford Dictionary

Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary announced it was adding 26 new words derived from Korean.

They included K-drama, which it defined as: “A television series in the Korean language and produced in South Korea”.

Two people lick honeycomb pieces replicating a game from the series Squid Game
Singaporean cafe goers try their hand at the “honeycomb challenge” featured in Squid Game.(Reuters: Edgar Su)

Others were “mukbang”, meaning a video featuring “a person eating a large quantity of food and talking to the audience”, and “oppa”, which is a girl or woman’s older brother but also is used “as a respectful form of address or term of endearment, and in extended use with reference to an older male friend or boyfriend”.

Along with K-drama were a raft of “Konglish” words, defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a mixture of Korean and English”.

These include “skinship”, meaning “touching or close physical contact between parent and child or … between lovers or friends”, and “fighting”, an exclamation used for “expressing encouragement, incitement, or support: ‘Go on!’ or ‘Go for it!’.”

Fighting was ironically one of the untranslatable terms used frequently in K-drama, despite its origins in English, Dr Cho said.

“I’ve noticed on Netflix [Korean dramas] people use ‘cheer up’, but it is not quite the same [as in English],” she said.

Miniature South Korean and Austalian flags sit on a table
South Korea has strategically exported its culture around the world.(Supplied: Korean Cultural Centre)

Ms Kim said about 600 students learned Korean language at the Korean Cultural Centre each year, and more than half of them said they became interested in the country after watching K-drama.

“I believe that K-drama and movies, as well as K-pop, are gaining a strong following and fan base in Australia,” she said.

Ms Kim said the Korean wave — defined in its new entry in the Oxford Dictionary as “the rise of international interest in South Korea and its popular culture which took place in the late 20th and 21st centuries” — was not over yet.

“With the success of Squid Game, there is a greater expectation for high-quality content that combines more diverse genres, exquisite storytelling, and distinct visuals,” she said.

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