“Squid Game” is one of Netflix’s most popular programs ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s without controversy.
The Korean-language drama has already become the platform’s most popular non-English language show and is on track to become its biggest hit ever. With the show’s popularity comes heightened attention paid to its subtitles, as it’s been subtitled in over 30 languages and dubbed in 13.
Some viewers fluent in both English and Korean have become frustrated with the English language subtitles, claiming their translations misrepresented what was actually said by the actors speaking Korean.
Among the more vocal critics is Youngmi Mayer, host of the “Feeling Asian” podcast, who said on TikTok that when character Han Mi-nyeo is trying to convince other players to team up with her, the subtitles say, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out.” What she actually says is, “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.”
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Mayer’s videos have sparked debate about the show with some critics accusing Netflix and other services of cutting out curse words and suggestive language to change the meaning of a scene.
While the differences in the dialogue could be chalked up to misrepresentation of the Korean language, experts on the subject have pointed out that translation isn’t a straightforward science and is often an underpaid skill in the industry.
Edward Hong, an actor who was part of the English-dubbing cast of “Squid Game,” said that he was happy to see his fellow dubbing castmates were of Korean and Asian descent because they can help pick out mistakes and changes that should be made in the script.
“Korean actors — even if not fluent — can call out something if it’s not right,” the actor, who played a priest in the 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.”
Dubbing is a tricky job, he noted, because not only do actors have to match the on-screen performances but must also match their mouth movements.
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Additionally, there are limitations placed on translating and subtitling for television.
“Audiovisual translation — subtitling in particular — is limited to space constraints on the screen,” translator Denise Kripper told the outlet. Kripper has subtitled a number of TV shows herself.
“In general, subtitles can’t be longer than two lines — that’s even fewer characters than a tweet,” she explained. “The most perfect of translations still needs to be paraphrased or adapted if it doesn’t fit within those spatial limitations.”
Every channel or platform, Kripper said, is limited by its own specific guidelines on offensive language and culture-specific references.
“The audiovisual industry moves fast, time is money on TV, so turnaround for translations can be fast,” she added. “Translators work around the clock so that people can watch their favorite shows.”
Mayer pointed out in another video that the title of the first episode is different in Korean and English.
In English, the episode is known as “Red Light, Green Light,” named after the children’s game played in the show. However, Mayer said the Korean title translates to “The day that the mugunghwa flower blossomed,” which is the game’s name in Korean.
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While she realized at first she was watching the show with English closed captions rather than subtitles, she said that there were still “big things missing from the narrative” due to translations.
Greta Jung, who has dubbed Korean and Chinese shows for Netflix, suggested English-language viewers are watching a watered-down version of “Squid Game” due to translations.
“They should have made a parenthesis in the subtitles when the North Korean character speaks,” She said. Kang Sae-byeok, a character who is a North Korean defector “has a North Korean accent and hides it around South Korean people. That’s important, that’s significant.”
Noting this in subtitles, Jung said, could help viewers open up to accents in other languages.
“The world doesn’t revolve around English,” she added.
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Kripper said “a generalized lack of familiarity and exposure of English speakers — Americans in particular — to other cultures” has presented a challenge when trying to preserve cultural references in subtitles.
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“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,” she explained.