Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s iconic and shady comment about Hollywood overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles firmly set the tone for an incoming western audience of foreign-language media. A year and a half later, Squid Game, a Korean-language episodic series by Hwang Dong-hyuk about the perils of capitalism metaphorized by a Battle Royale–style game, is set to be Netflix’s most-watched show ever. But, as it turns out, there is more to that one-inch barrier than meets the eye.
The story portrays a group of debt-ridden strangers and the lengths they will be asked to go to for the promise of financial freedom. In a closed-off arena on a remote island, they are instructed to play children’s games like red light, green light and tug-of-war, where losing means immediate death. The more players eliminated, the larger the sum of the prize money. Much like with capitalism’s mythological freedom of choice, emphasized to the players is the idea that they chose to enter the game.
Squid Game hit big, attracting and hooking completely new audiences. Netflix released the nine-episode series on September 17, and within the first week and a half, the earliest fans populated social timelines with niche memes, TikTok audios, and character references, quickly luring everyone else to be in on the joke as well.
Soon after, the online conversation shifted to include varying opinions and examples from Korean speakers of Netflix’s “bad” translations of the dialogue into English, from sterilizing nuances to ignoring cultural context; there are even conspiracy theories that the translations aimed to water down the anti-capitalist message of the show. One of the most-liked videos on TikTok that discusses the translation has gotten over 11 million views. The podcaster who made that TikTok, Youngmi Mayer, had also tweeted saying that “if you don’t understand Korean, you didn’t really watch the same show.”
“It ranges from seemingly very benign, small differences to very big narrative differences in the writing,” Mayer told the Cut. “I think the phrase ‘you’re watching a different show’ is like you’re watching different characters. If you’re having these gangster-y characters that are using a certain type of language and then [translators are] sanitizing it or they’re writing their dialogue in a different tone, it’s like … This is probably a really annoying reference, but it’s like watching a Tarantino movie and all the ‘motherfuckers’ are taken out. And the deeper metaphor and meanings that the writer took so many pains to put in are just left out. So in that sense, you’re watching a watered-down version, if you’re missing all the deep metaphors.”
Mayer is talking about the closed captions, by the way. She admitted that following her viral tweets and TikTok, it was brought to her attention that she was watching the English CC, not the English subtitles. However, the English subtitles, which are different from the closed captions she described, are “actually pretty good,” she said.
The Squid Game translation discourse is how Mayer and many other fans came to find out that closed-captioning and subtitles are not the same thing and don’t serve the same purpose. Subtitles are translations of the original audio aimed for people who don’t know the source language. Closed-captioning exists to serve deaf and hard of hearing audiences, so they include laughs, soundtrack notes, off-screen footsteps, any important audio note that would contribute to a deaf person’s understanding of what’s happening onscreen. Like in the case of Squid Game, foreign-language closed captions often mimic the English dubbing script.
“The way that [translators] cut a sentence has to follow grammar, logic, and certain rules that [the streamers] have established,” said Dr. Belén Agulló García, a Spain-based translator and accessibility researcher currently working to expand audio accessibility in gaming. “This is something that we are all used to in the industry to follow these rules, and that’s fine. But that’s also a constraint when you are trying to translate specific content from a different culture that has so many nuances. Even if you want to be more accurate, you cannot add a footnote in a subtitle.”
Closed captions, based on dubs, are particularly affected because dubbed dialogue has to match the onscreen duration of the original dialogue: For example, if a character takes three seconds to say an idea in Korean, but the most precise translation in English takes eight seconds, that translation will likely be simplified. For both subtitles and closed captions, there are character limits, so audiences have enough time to read what’s on the screen as it appears.
“When I worked for a streaming company as a subtitler and editor, I was often asked to simplify my subtitles,” said a Korean-English translator who chose to remain anonymous. “Which meant I was almost never able to provide any cultural context that could be helpful to non-Korean speakers since some viewers might not be able to read subs very fast. In general, we were asked to limit the subs to no more than two lines, and the shorter the better.”
Moments like these are probably growing pains. Relatively speaking, we’ve only had a handful of non-English films and shows thus far that have gotten the kind of cachet in the West that Squid Game has gotten. It is imaginably frustrating for a show to be a viral hit based on translations that don’t really demonstrate just how good it is. But despite the fact that people asking for better are oftentimes justified, it might be inevitable that these initial viral conversations are, at times, clumsy and misinformed of industry technicalities.
When asked about what makes a subtitle “good” or “bad,” Dr. García said, “The judges are the viewers and the end users.” But even then, there are disagreements among viewers as to what makes a subtitle successful. On one hand, at the expense of culturally specific metaphors and tropes, international viewers get an immersive, uninterrupted storytelling experience that is accessible to those without proficient cultural knowledge. On the other hand, knowing about those cultural specificities makes for a richer understanding of the work.
Whether or not those cultural specificities can fully be conveyed to outsiders without a director’s-cut-style version remains to be seen. But that doesn’t mean film and TV fans won’t try. “I think it struck a nerve because a lot of people that are bilingual understood what I’m saying,” Mayer said. “I saw a lot of comments of people that just speak Spanish and they’re like, ‘Oh, the Spanish translation is always wrong too.’ And I think it’s probably because even though there has been so much culture mixing, somehow I think we all accepted that [nuances] are going to be lost in translation. I think we’re coming to this realization that the internet really connects all of us, and [providing extra context] could very easily be done. This is just opening up that conversation for that.”