#CurrentlyReading: The Squid Game Debate

This post is part of a regular series where I share what I’m currently reading and engage in discussion about the field of translation and interpreting.

Translators are essentially gatekeepers of global communication and expression.

Sharon Kwon

I have to start this post by stating upfront that I have not (yet) watched Squid Game, nor do I speak Korean. However, I have been following the debate playing out about the show’s subtitles and, by extension, other non-English language shows produced by Netflix.

The debate started when New York-based comedian Youngmi Mayer released a TikTok video critiquing the closed captions for Squid Game (although it seems that at the time she had confused them for the subtitles). She argued that the English captions were so literally translated that they lost the nuance of the original Korean. Not only that, she believed that they resulted in English-speaking audiences experiencing a very different show from Korean audiences. From there, countless others have weighed in on the debate.

I can’t offer the most informed opinion about the accuracy and quality of subtitles for this Netflix hit. However, the specific word choices made by the English subtitlers do not happen to be the most interesting aspect of the debate. The more fascinating aspects of the conversation revolve around a different set of questions.

First, what is accuracy in subtitling?

I’m of the opinion that when you translate something, you are essentially writing a new text. Of course, our job as translators is to comprehend and preserve the essence of the source text, of the author’s intentions and style, and of the experience had by the audience in the source language. But transferring languages isn’t just an act of word substitution. It is an entire process of adaptation and integration into the unique and multidimensional cultural context, social and political reality, and historical worldview shaped by the target language and in which the target language lives and breathes. The translated text is the same yet different.

Therefore, accuracy cannot be judged according to just one textbook definition. Things will be lost in translation. Hopefully not important things. But yes, some things.

Second, so translation loss is inevitable, but at what point does the meaning lost (or style lost, or what have you) go from acceptable to unacceptable?
Third, who is entitled to critique the translator? And how seriously should critiques be taken?

I’ve seen responses in this debate that minimize the critique of the subtitling because the source is “just” a comedian, isn’t a linguist, is “only” bilingual but not a trained professional, etc. I disagree with this sense of superiority. We are indeed skilled language workers but we translate for all kinds of audiences. If our audiences are unsatisfied with the result, regardless of their bilingualism or education in linguistics, we have to seriously consider whether we have done our jobs well.

What follows are recent articles I’ve read with nuanced and/or representative perspectives on the Squid Game subtitling debate.

Squid Game Subtitles and Dubbing Prompt Online Debate Over Netflix’s Translation

Read this for a general summary of the debate and a few points about the growing export and popularity of Korean pop culture.

Dr Cho said there was no such thing as a perfect translation, and differences in dialogue were unsurprising because many words, phrases or concepts were “untranslatable” from one language to another.

Max Walden

Lost in translation? The one-inch truth about Netflix’s subtitle problem

This article in The Guardian goes a step further to look at the emotional weight behind the debate around subtitling. As the author writes,

What these debates really reveal, perhaps, is the depth of emotional investment in these bingeworthy shows. Of course, non-native speakers will miss nuances. This can be obvious from the subtitles themselves and it only makes you study the actor’s performances even harder to make up for it.

Vic Groskop

Netflix’s Botched Translation Misses a Key Part of Squid Game

This article in Slate takes a stronger position that the subtitling omissions represent a deeper bias on the part of Netflix. It also gives a bit more thorough breakdown on the cultural context of Korean society from which Squid Game emerges. It also breaks down some of the meaning that was lost in the English subtitles and why it is significant.

Darcy Paquet, who composed the English subtitles for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, said in a lecture that “compromise is inevitable in subtitle translation. It’s quite common that you have to end up choosing actually a 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 bit too much to process as they are watching the film.

Sharon Kwon

The Difference Between Subtitles and Captions

Read this for a useful primer on the differences between subtitles and closed captions.

Why Subtitlers Have One of the Hardest Jobs in TV

Check out this eye-opening and entertaining read about what actually goes into respeaking, which is used for subtitling for TV captions.

Los traductores españoles protestan por los “mediocres” subtítulos de ‘El juego del calamar’, hechos por una máquina

And last, but not least, we cannot ignore that which is behind all translation (even machine translation): human labor. I’m not opposed to post-editing but I do think translators need to radically change how we are compensated for such work.


What are you reading this week? Feel free to share in the comments or email me links to content you’re enjoying!

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