Hwang Dong-hyuk’s South Korean series Squid Game is a global phenomenon, with subtitles in 31 languages. On Netflix, Squid Game is number one in 90 countries and has become the overall most-watched show. Naturally, everyone is talking about the show on social media, and the topic of conversation has, naturally, caught our eye.
The debate has gone viral over Squid Game’s supposedly “botched” translations. This controversy stems from Twitter and TikTok statements by Youngmi Mayer, a Korean American comic and podcast host. Mayer remarked about the English subtitles: “if you don’t understand Korean, you didn’t really watch the same show.”
However, Youngmi mistakenly mentioned subtitles when she was actually referring to closed captions. This misunderstanding begs the question, what’s the difference between closed captions and subtitles? Which is better? What gets lost in translation? Why?
Challenges of Closed Captions vs. Subtitles
Closed captions and subtitles are visual aids helping multilingual audiences understand the dialogue, but they serve two different purposes. Understanding this distinction will give you a fuller experience of watching foreign-language shows and films:
Subtitles are a text alternative for the spoken dialogue of characters and narrators in a video, they aim to make content as enjoyable and relatable as possible for international audiences.
Nevertheless, subtitle translators work within strict parameters. There are limits to how much text people can read while actors say corresponding lines. And translated text cannot take up too much screen space. Translators are forced to shorten subtitles to align with speech and save time to watch scenes without getting lost.
Within subtitles, it is unrealistic to expect complete cultural context behind references and sayings. Supplementing foreign-language content with extensive background information would be educational. But it would interrupt storytelling and immersion.
An overcomplicated viewing experience would alienate casual viewers. So instead, translators interpret humor and nuanced language in a way that’s relatable and natural, while preserving general meaning.
Closed Captions and Dubbing
Closed captions help deaf and hard-of-hearing people access media. These viewers cannot hear dialogue, sounds, or music. So closed captions describe music and sound effects and identify who’s speaking, leaving less time and space for translations.
Streaming platforms have the option of dubbed audio. Whereas subtitles show translated text while original audio plays, dubbing replaces original audio. Viewers listen to translated voiceovers recorded by different actors.
Dubbing has its own challenges. Translated dialogue must convey a similar meaning in the same amount of time as the original dialogue. Plus, dubbed words should synchronize with original actors’ mouth movements, delivery, and gestures. This causes more differences between the original script and dubbing translations.
Also, closed captions are typically auto-generated from dubbed audio. So the limitations of dubbing translation and closed captioning compound into a simplified version of the dialogue. For the most accurate translations, always select subtitles.
Examples of closed caption vs. subtitle discrepancies
These examples from multilingual titles illustrate subtitle and caption complexities:
- Squid Game Dialogue
- Caption: “I’m not a genius, but I still got it [worked] out.”
- Precise translation, according to Mayer: “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.”
- Mayer harshly criticized the caption as a “sterilization” of the Korean trope referencing economic inequality and education.
- Translators optimized captioned dialogue to make sense to international hard-of-hearing viewers. Closed captioning for the hard of hearing does not allow time or space to explain South Korean culture.
- Squid Game First Episode Title
- Precise title translation, according to Mayer: “The day that the mugunghwa flower blossomed”
- Caption: “Red Light, Green Light”
- The Korean childhood game “The mugunghwa flower has blossomed” is named after South Korea’s national flower. The English-language equivalent of this game is Red Light, Green Light.
- Translators sacrifice subtle metaphors to make captions brief and understandable in other languages.
- Money Heist Dialogue
- Precise translation, according to David Orrego-Carmona: “Alberto, if I get out the car, I’m going to give you such a hell (hostia) of a beating that you won’t be able to stay on your feet.”
- Dubbed version: “If I have to get out of the car, I’m gonna beat you so hard you don’t know what day it is.”
- Subtitles: “Alberto, if I get out of the car, I’ll beat you senseless.”
- “Somanta de hostias” is Spanish slang- literally, ‘communion bread,’ which would not make sense in English. Explaining the figure of speech through captions or subtitles is impractical. So translators choose an alternative phrase with a similar meaning.
- Anime Series Baki
- Dubbed version: “Don’t sweat it, Baki. I didn’t come here for you. I’m here for him- the guy on the floor. I promised someone I’d hunt him down.”
- Subtitles: “I just need that guy on the floor. I’ve made a promise to hunt this guy.”
- The “sub vs. dub” argument persists among anime fans. Many who are passionate about anime swear by subtitles and original audio. But in some cases, subtitles are lacking and unnatural compared to the dubbed audio.
Did Netflix Translators Do a Good Job on Squid Game?
Experts weigh in with professional opinions about Squid Game’s translations:
Euijin Seo, the creator of the Korean language course goodjobkorean, lives in Seongnam, South Korea. He disagrees with calling the subtitles ‘bad.’ Seo explains that “the creators just made the subtitles that way for easier understanding.”
Edward Hong voice acted for multiple Squid Game characters, including Kim Si-Hyun’s. He commends the “excellent” collaborative work of actors, “ADR director, the audio engineer, and the translator” to pull off the “magic trick” of dubbing.
Keisha Karina worked for Netflix on Squid Game’s English-to-Indonesian translations. The translator responded to Youngmi Mayer’s social media criticism: “We have this… ‘reading speed limit’… we can only use a certain amount of characters… Thus in lots of subtitle[s], we have to ‘paraphrase’ the dialogue, so the translation fits.”
In fact, Netflix permits two lines or 42 characters per subtitle. Each subtitle stays on-screen for up to seven seconds. This is not due to cultural ignorance. It makes the show accessible to international and hearing-impaired audiences.
Squid Games is a massive hit, and fans long for in-depth cultural understanding. Perhaps Netflix could release directors-cut editions of popular foreign-language titles like Squid Games, Lupin, Money Heist, and more.
Translation: An undervalued art, not an exact science
Language and entertainment are inherently subjective. Beyond cultural context, everyone has unique perspectives and interpretations. One could argue that no two people ever truly ‘watch the same show.’ But translators still do their best to make international titles available to everyone.
Parasite director Bong Joon Ho once mused that “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And that is the foremost takeaway of the Squid Game conversation.
People are enjoying international and foreign-language media more than ever. No one will come away with the exact same experience. Yet, people all over the world connect through these beloved titles and the ability to discuss them online.
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