Translators, experts weigh in on 'Squid Game' subtitle debate
Like so many people around the world, Youngmi Mayer recently binged Netflix’s survival drama “Squid Game.” The comedian and co-host of the podcast Feeling Asian, who is fluent in Korean, vented some of her frustrations on TikTok last week over what she believed were the English subtitles for “Squid Game” in a video that’s since racked up more than 10 million views.
In one of Mayer’s widely viewed videos, she said the brash character Han Mi-nyeo’s dialogue is “botched” and sterilized. When the actor tries to convince other players to play a game with her, the caption states, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out,” but Mayer said what she actually said was, “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.”
For some bilingual and multilingual Korean speakers watching “Squid Game” with English subtitles or closed captions, aspects of the dystopian series felt lost in translation. But experts also point out translation is an art form, one that’s often underappreciated, underpaid and limited by industry practices.
Mayer's videos have spawned an online debate about translation, subtitles and dubbing, with viewers echoing Mayer’s concerns on social media, accusing “Squid Game” and other Netflix productions of cutting out swear words and suggestive language from subtitles and condensing dialogue in ways that can change the meaning of a scene. Many Korean-language speakers have pointed out they don’t agree with Mayer’s translations, however.
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment about the English translation process of “Squid Game.”
Actor Edward Hong, who was part of the English-dubbing cast for “Squid Game,” was pleased to see the voice actors were of Korean and Asian descent, which he said helps when it comes to correcting mistranslations in the script or adding authenticity.
“Korean actors, even if not fluent, can call out something if it’s not right,” said Hong, who voiced Player 244, a pastor, in the hit series, told NBC Asian America. “The way Korean religious people, especially pastors, talk is a very specific way of talking. That’s something I knew all too well from being stuck in those Korean church services as a kid.”
Hong said dubbing is a difficult job, even more so than voice acting for animation, because the actor needs to honor the original actor’s performance while matching the mouth flaps of the actor, so it’s not out of sync. He founded the PGM VO List, short for People of the Global Majority Voice-Over List, in 2020 to support inclusion efforts in voice-over work.
Subtitled in 31 languages and dubbed in 13, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s allegory about modern capitalist society and class disparity hit Netflix’s No. 1 spot in 90 countries.
“Audiovisual translation, subtitling in particular, is limited to space constraints on the screen,” said translator Denise Kripper, who has subtitled numerous television shows. “In general, subtitles can’t be longer than two lines — that’s even fewer characters than a tweet. The most perfect of translations still needs to be paraphrased or adapted if it doesn’t fit within those spatial limitations.”
Kripper said every channel or platform has their own guidelines about formatting, offensive language and culture-specific references.
“The audiovisual industry moves fast, time is money on TV, so turnaround for translations can be fast,” she said. “Translators work around the clock so that people can watch their favorite shows.”
In another video, Mayer said the title of the first episode of “Squid Game” translates to “The day that the mugunghwa flower blossomed,” a reference to the game’s Korean name, “The mugunghwa flower has blossomed,” and the national flower of South Korea. But the English subtitles simply read, “Red Light, Green Light,” as the game is known in the U.S., which she said erases its metaphorical meaning.
Mayer, like many others, didn’t initially realize she was watching the Korean drama with English closed captions rather than subtitles, but she said even after watching the subtitled version, she still felt frustrated.
“I still think there’s so many big things missing from the narrative,” Mayer said. “I understand there’s a cultural difference and there’s no time to explain things in full, but I saw a lot of people saying, ‘I wish I knew what this meant.’ I think it’s doing a huge disservice to the writer that the translator, [because] of word economy, can’t include these cultural references.”
Mayer and others online have noted that translation work is often undervalued and that the sheer volume of content makes translation for film and television even more challenging. Some studios have opted to use machine translation, which Kripper said isn’t effective compared to using a real translator.
While viewers have credited the translated subtitles and English-dubbed versions of “Squid Game” as being more accurate than the closed captions, some Korean speakers feel this highlights a larger historical issue at play.
Greta Jung, who has dubbed roles for several Korean and Chinese Netflix shows, shared the sentiments of fans who worry that English speakers are watching a watered-down version of “Squid Game.”
“They should have made a parenthesis in the subtitles when the North Korean character speaks,” Jung said. “[Kang Sae-byeok] has a North Korean accent and hides it around South Korean people — that’s important, that’s significant.”
Jung said adding that context would open Americans’ minds to the fact that there are accents in other languages.
“The world doesn’t revolve around English,” she said.
Americans were previously known for shunning foreign-language programming and being adverse to reading subtitles, as director Bong Joon Ho famously joked about during his 2020 Golden Globe acceptance speech for “Parasite.”
“A big part of the challenge in preserving cultural references in translation comes from a generalized lack of familiarity and exposure of English speakers, Americans in particular, to other cultures,” Kipper said. “The more subtitled films they watch, the more translated books they read, the better, in terms of being able to appreciate and learn about a different culture, which is the whole point of translation.”
Views of foreign language titles were up over 50 percent in 2020 on Netflix, and the streaming giant has said the average U.S. viewer now watches three times as much dubbed content as in 2018, which underscores the importance of translation and dubbing casting.
Fans like Mayer hope productions can do more when it comes to preserving language and cultural accuracy and giving English-speaking viewers a little more credit, such as thinking that if the viewers don’t understand something, they can look it up.
“People do watch media now with their phones in their hands,” Mayer said. “Imagine if somebody writing ‘True Detective’ was like, ‘Well people won’t get this reference, so let’s take it out.’ That would never happen.”