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Squid Game: how Netflix failed the show’s creators and fans

Squid Game: how Netflix failed the show’s creators and fans

Faithful readers will know that wordinc has a lot to say about subtitles. We’ve written about the problem with subtitles in Germany and even told you how to get better subtitles in four steps, and generally we take every opportunity to work it into the conversation. For all we have to say about it, we have never said—and will never say—is that subtitling is easy.

But we will say this: There comes a point when bad translation goes beyond sloppy work and becomes a national insult.

Such is the case with the subtitles for Squid Game, a Korean TV series available on Netflix.

Since its release in September, Squid Game has become the streaming platform’s most-watched show of all time. Its soaring popularity surely put a big grin on the faces of Netflix executives, but that grin was promptly wiped away as soon as bilingual viewers began pointing out the series’ fatal flaw: its English subtitles.

Youngmi Mayer, co-host of the podcast Feeling Asian, first drew attention to this on her Twitter account. “If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show,” she tweeted. “The dialogue was so well written and zero of it was preserved.” She later released a TikTok video that illuminates glaring errors in Squid Game’s English subtitles. Among the translation’s chief offenses is that no suitable solutions were found for Korean honorifics, words that indicate status and relationship between two people. For example, “oppa”—an endearing term for an older male friend—is translated as “old man” or even “babe.” But at least it made the cut: “ahjumma,” a derogatory term for an older woman, is dropped from the subtitles completely. Such omissions forego nuanced expressions of feeling and power dynamics for a quick, digestible translation, leaving non-Korean-speaking viewers in the dark.

Mayer also points out that the English fails to account for the ways in which the show comments on Korean society. For example, she says there is “a huge trope in Korean media – the poor person that’s smart and clever and that just isn’t wealthy.” The character Han Mi-nyeo represents this trope in Squid Game. In one scene where she tries to recruit other players to team up with her, the closed captioning subtitles (for the hard of hearing) read “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out.” Mayer argues that this translation is making the character sound dumb when she’s really arguing for her wits. A more accurate interpretation might have been: “I never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart.” Viewers relying on the subtitles have not only been misled about how the character views herself; they have been robbed of access to a cultural touchstone that Korean viewers would instantly recognize.

Such reports dismay English-speaking fans of Korean media. How can a major global streaming company botch the fundamentals of broadcasting multilingual media? Do they even care that they’re doing a disservice to the writers, insulting the viewers, and interfering with cross-cultural understanding? Thankfully, the rest of us can rely on vigilant bilingual watchdogs to hold streaming giants to higher standards.

Indeed, we should all demand more of companies that have such wide reach. They are in a better position than almost anyone to bring people of disparate backgrounds closer to a common understanding. By settling for low-quality translations, Netflix has cheapened the good work of great creative minds and shortchanged paying customers in the process.

Everyone involved deserves better.

***

You can avoid Netflix’s subtitling shame by trusting wordinc with your translation. Get a free, non-binding quote today or call us at (0) 40 30030 5950 to learn more.

***

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/oct/14/squid-game-netflix-translations-subtitle-problem

https://www.vice.com/en/article/wx5wqx/netflix-squid-game-subtitles-wrong

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