Squid Game and the importance of effective translation

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, stated director Bong Joon-ho, as he accepted his Best Picture Oscar for Parasite in 2020, in a not-so-subtle dig at the dominance of English language content within Hollywood. A year later, and Bong Joon-ho continues to be proven right, as highlighted by the success of Netflix’s Squid Game – a Korean series in which contestants, all of whom are in deep financial debt, risk their lives to play a number of deadly children’s games for the chance to win a life-changing ₩45.6 billion. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s nine-episode dystopian drama has become Netflix’s biggest debut hit, earning the title of its number one show in a whopping 90 countries (mostly within days of release), subtitled in 31 languages and dubbed into 13. It has even eclipsed the ever-popular Bridgerton, which was streamed by 82 million households in its first month alone.

However, Netflix’s most popular series yet has also sparked an intense debate about what exactly gets lost in that one-inch block of text, and given rise to questions concerning the platform’s commitment to creating accurate versions of foreign-language scripts. For bilingual Korean speakers watching Squid Game, with English subtitles or closed captions, some aspects of the series felt lost in translation. The original brilliantly written characters and clever dialogue were not given the justice they deserve. Some have even argued that if you have watched the show in English, you didn’t really watch it at all.

This debate has further highlighted the ways in which brands market to foreign audiences, and the need to understand the very language and culture of specific target markets. For just as in film, businesses need to ensure their content is both accurate and easy to understand if it is to appeal to an international audience – a Google translation job simply will not suffice. Here we have teamed up with Thailand-based translation expert Thitiphan Smernate (Bew) from 24-7 Services to take a closer look at the importance of effective translation, focusing on the common difficulties and mistakes made with reference to Squid Game and further Thai language examples.

Cultural nuances

As identified by Bew, “professional translators need a thorough understanding and knowledge of culture and context, and possess the outstanding language skills for both source and target languages” in order to provide an effective translation. When attempting to replace a written statement by the same message or statement in another language, it is important to uphold accuracy and avoid ambiguity, all while maintaining the original message and its context. Thus, specific details and particularities play a crucial role in the end result, especially as cultural subtleties that are not accounted for bring an entirely opposite meaning than is intended.

Every sentence, expression and term holds value and possesses a unique historical, social and cultural context. As such, it is essential to look at what each really means (not necessarily literally) and convey that meaning in a way that makes sense not only in the target language but also in the context of the target culture.

It is also for this reason that Bew holds having a wide lexicon (including slang and all recently evolved vocabulary) and a greatly advanced writing level in the target language as key. “The former for selecting the most suitable words for any given context and the latter for combining those words together in order to preserve and convey the message, idea as well as emotion in the source text of the sender to the recipient in the target text”. When that cultural knowledge is combined with expert language skills, the result is always going to be more accurate.

With regards to Squid Game, it has been identified that English viewers are missing out on all-important Korean nuances due to the show’s inaccurate translation. A prominent example can be seen with the character Ali Abdul, who most poignantly serves as a reminder that Korea operates on a class-based system. As an undocumented Pakistani migrant, Ali is viewed to be at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, and as seen with his formal mode of address and consistent bowing, he is all too aware of his status and is conditioned to act in accordance to it. Thus for most of the episodes, when Ali is speaking to Sang-Woo, he uses the term sajang-nim to refer to him, as a sign of respect and to suggest Sang-Woo is his superior. While the English subtitles translate this term to mean ‘sir’, the more accurate translation reveals it to be closer to the word ‘boss’. By using the former, translated versions of Squid Game lessen the impact of the series’ anti-capitalist message and miss an opportunity to highlight the very first term that foreign labourers in Korea pick up as a result of spending most of their time at work under exploitative bosses.

Furthermore, as the series goes on, Ali and Sang-Woo’s relationship drastically evolves, and Sang-Woo insists Ali drop all rigorous formalities and address him as hyung instead – a term that would typically refer to an older brother but is also used between any close males. This term is adopted to further establish that Ali now trusts Sang-Woo, making it all the more emotional when he betrays him in episode six and Ali is left calling after his “older brother” as he is killed off-screen. Yet again, the poignancy of this moment is not fully delivered due to the absence of an equivalent English term. In the English subtitle, the line “Call me hyung” is translated as “Call me Sang Woo”, not only neglecting Korea’s widespread use of honorifics and pronouns in place of first names, but also the sheer degree of intimacy attached to hyung.

Thai is also known for its use of honorifics that typically convey a person’s sex, age and societal status. However, unlike in Korea, these honorifics are followed by a person’s first name. For example, using Pi/Pii before an older person’s name indicates respect and acknowledgement of seniority, and directly translates to older brother or sister, while Nong followed by a first name is the correct term of address for somebody younger, and translates to younger brother or sister. However, things aren’t always so simple, as a younger person may be referred to as pee if they have attained a higher status – be that through marriage or by way of their profession. As such, it is crucial to not only understand the social norms that are tightly woven into the fabric of Thai culture, but further know when it is acceptable to divert from them and precisely what these diversions convey in order to provide the most accurate translation.

Closed caption subtitles

Both subtitles and closed captions are visual aids – as opposed to dubbing, which involves translating speech into another language and lip-synching new dialogue over the original audio. However, the two are not interchangeable. Closed caption subtitles were initially devised for deaf viewers and include dialogue as well as audio descriptions of sounds (“a door slams”) and prompts as to who is speaking. The dialogue used in closed captions is usually a direct transcript of the dubbing script, as is the case for Squid Game. Subtitles, on the other hand, are a text alternative meant to accurately match the original dialogue being spoken. They do not include elements of audio and use another script entirely.

Depending on whether you choose to watch the closed caption or subtitled version of Squid Game, the translation is guaranteed to be wildly different, and in many cases, changes the deeper meaning behind certain lines of dialogue. A prime example of this can be seen with the character of Mi-nyeo. While undoubtedly she is an annoying character, often talking loudly and posing to be tougher than she truly is, her portrayal based on the closed captions lacks depth and disregards her role in speaking on greater issues within Korean society.

In the scene where Mi-nyeo attempts to convince other players to be her partner for the marble-based game, the closed caption reads: “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out”, whereas what she actually says more accurately translates to: “I am very smart, I just never got the chance to study”. Thus, with the closed captions’ inaccuracy comes a missed opportunity to highlight the underlying issues in Korea where there is a perception that poorer individuals are not given opportunities to thrive – something creator Hwang Dong-hyuk hoped viewers would be spurred to discuss. The subtitle version is regarded to be substantially better and reads: “I never bothered to study but I’m insanely savvy”. Yet this again misses the full breadth of the Korean dialogue and is not reflective of the writer’s intended message.

What these inconsistencies and mistranslations highlight is that subtitling requires a robust understanding of the writer’s intentions. For, as indicated by Bew, when translators fail to preserve the message the writer wished to convey, “it results in a major loss for the audience”. When commenting on what Squid Game could have done better, Bew stated that “engaging a team of proficient translators/linguists and probably two editors – one native English speaker and one Korean, to edit and cross-check the translation” would have resulted in the most contextual and cultural accuracy and a better-preserved message within the subtitles. “This would benefit both the creators who want to present their creativity to the audience worldwide, and the audience themselves who can appreciate and be entertained by these creative pieces”, she added.

The challenges of subtitling

When it comes to effective translation, it is important to understand that many challenges must be overcome. Subtitling, in particular, is limited to space and time constraints on the screen. On commenting about the mistranslations found in Squid Game, professional subtitler/translator Petra Mäkinen highlighted: “In subtitling you can usually fit between 36 and 42 characters on a line (including spaces) and the maximum duration doesn’t usually exceed seven seconds”. Thus, “It would be impossible to fit every nuance of the show in the subtitles due to cultural differences, so the translators will have to use the closest equivalents found in the target language”. Realistically, even the most perfect translations will still need to be paraphrased or adapted if it does not fit within the spatial and time-related limitations.

Furthermore, closed captions that utilise the dubbing script pose an even greater challenge. This is because a dubbing script is always going to be less accurate as it faces two major obstacles. First, its translation must be completed so that it takes exactly the same amount of time to say out loud in both the source and target language. Second, if there is an opportunity to copy mouth movements, it must be taken. This is why in Squid Game, the Korean honorific oppa is translated to ‘babe’ within the closed captions. It is ‘old man’ in the subtitle script, but neither of these are entirely accurate as the term of respect actually means ‘older brother’. It is evident that translators often have to take liberties, and, as a result, non-native speakers are almost certainly going to miss nuances.

As pointed out by Bew, human errors are also “inevitable due to the lack of understanding and misunderstanding of culture and context in the source language, especially for those who were not born and raised, or don’t live in the country of such a source language”. Again, this is where the importance of hiring more than one translator comes in, so that all work can be cross-referenced for the most fitting translation.

It is additionally important to note that each channel or streaming platform has its own guidelines about formatting, offensive language and culture-specific references – all of which present their own limitations. Translators also have to ensure they keep viewers engaged, as highlighted by Darcy Paquet, who composed the English subtitles for Parasite. He stated: “Compromise is inevitable in subtitle translation. It’s quite common that you have to end up choosing an actually slightly worse translation that is more concise, that is easier to read, and which keeps the audience in the film rather than giving them something that is a little too much to process as they are watching the film”.

Why Squid Game’s translation was actually, in fact, not a bad job

In the translation profession, hints of literal translation often signal low-quality work. For an effective end product, translators must focus on meaning, and in the case of films and series, work to provide viewers with a product that will create a similar experience to the original. This is a point further expanded upon by Petra, who in reference to Squid Game, stated: “chances are a lot of the “mistranslations” are not in fact “huge misses but adaptations to something that the target audience would be more familiar with”. She goes on to suggest that good translations should not only capture the message and essence of a show, but also make the viewer feel as if they are not reading subtitles at all.

Thus, while Squid Game’s closed captions and subtitles miss out on these intricate nuances that give fuller meaning to specific characters, their actions and the overall plot, it would be pretty impossible to translate everything with 100% accuracy while still producing an engaging and relatable end product. These gaps in understanding are also down to the viewer’s lack of pre-existing cultural knowledge of Korea – which even the most effective translations (with included parenthesis for extended explanations) cannot fully account for.

If viewers feel like they need more insight into Korean terms and phrases such as gganbu, hyung, oppa, or kakdugi (all of which have been highlighted as not having been accurately translated), they can always do a bit of extra research themselves. Many of these terms further do not have a direct English equivalent rendering them ‘untranslatable’, meaning the gap left by them can only be filled by a genuine understanding of another culture or language. Considering these various challenges, Squid Game’s translation still did a good job, ensuring the viewer is able to easily follow and understand the plot, all while benefiting from concise subtitles that translate complex terms and phrases into more approachable ones.

Nevertheless, Bew indicates how Squid Game’s translation issues “made me wonder how much I’d appreciate this series even more if I understood Korean”. The most effective translation jobs should not require audience’s to be fluent in the source language; rather, they should be as culturally and contextually accurate to offer a coherent, easy-to-understand and effective end product.

For expert translation services, contact Ms Thitiphan Smernate (Bew) and the team at 24-7 Services at www.247services.co.th