Phenomenal runaway South Korean hit Squid Game, streaming via Netflix, was in one regard panned: For many viewers, the subtitle translations obscured the original content’s meaning. Criticism centred on the subtitles not conveying the complexity and nuances of the brilliantly written script. The errors are so bad, according to observers, that the English subtitled version and the Korea are completely different films in terms of not only dialogue, but meaning and character development.
For the uninitiated, Squid Game follows struggling South Koreans who do battle to escape the drudgery of their existence by winning a huge cash prize in a bloody series of games in which the penalty of losing is death.
(The script by director-writer Hwang Dong-hyuk had been rejected by movie companies on numerous occasions over the course of a decade, before it was made.)
One American Korean-speaking viewer, put their finger on the frustration this caused fans of the show. “Not to sound snobby, but I’m fluent in Korean and I watched Squid Game with English subtitles and if you don’t understand Korean, you didn’t really watch the same show,’ she tweeted. ‘Translation was so bad. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved,” she was reported by Elle as tweeting.
How bad was it, really?
Because of the changes of meaning in the subtitles, some of the characters came across as very different from that originally envisioned by the filmmaker, who is releasing three of his films the streaming platform.
The intensity of the situation contestants found themselves in was somewhat marred by the soft expletives they used whilst battling to the bitter end. In the original Korean, the language is far more gritty, as would befit such a hellish scenario.
One aspect of Korean that was wholly lost in translation was the use of honourifics. In many East Asian languages, honourifics are important parts of communication between people of different generations. They convey rich meaning about social relations, which was lost in the subtitles. These honorific comprise words like verb forms and pronouns that reflect and recognise the speakers’ social hierarchical status. There are certain pronouns that a younger speaker would use to address an older speaker. ‘Older brother’ is commonly used by a younger make when referring to an older man. It indicates a degree of closeness and fondness, but this was lost in the translation.
Another instance is when Pakistani shop worker Ali meets company chief Sang Woo. At first, Ali addresses Sang Woo with the moniker, Mr Company President. As their relationship deepens in the face of extreme adversity, Sang Woo bids Ali call him, hung, or big brother, instead. This affects the way a scene where Sang Woo betrays Ali, as the English translation was ‘call me Sang Woo,” which is not as poignant. The intimacy conveyed by the big brother moniker powerfully conveys the exploitation and selfishness of humans in general. Lastly, the lead film’s entire meaning was warped through the subtitle translations.
There are two English subtitles, one of which is closed captioning, has fewer errors. Closed captions display more than just what’s said, they convey other aspects of the visual display. It’s used for when the sound is unavailable or can’t be understood. The other version comprises a transcription of the dubbed version.
What is subtitling? (Subtitles, closed captions and dubbing)
To understand where it went wrong and how you can get it right first time, it’s necessary to understand the subtitling process and its limitations.
Subtitling falls between translation and interpretation and requires video transcription services with a specific set of skills, including the ability to condense dialogue into a set parameter – the on-screen closed caption space – whether the dialogue is intensely complex, or incredibly simple. Expert subtitles must be totally up-to-date with changes in vernacular language as much television content features everyday language, often spoken by young people, who are on the cutting edge of changes to language. Just as a dubbing studio would have a dubbing artist, audio and video transcription services include highly honed subtitle experts. A good subtitle translator is hard to find, so do your due diligence. A good subtitling agency will be able provide premium subtitling services that are fit for an international hit. When consider a dubbing and subtitling services company, make sure to look at the reviews of existing customers, and assess the level of content they have produced before. Many companies will provide audio transcription services, voice dubbing and video translation services under one roof.
Translating phrases in a way that takes the same amount of time to say the same thing in two languages is incredibly challenging. Copying actors’ mouth movements is important as it increases the feeling of authenticity and audience engagement. There is a fine balance between matching the actors’ mouth movements and staying true to the actual words.
The language pair being translated also has a bearing on subtitle challenges. For example, when translating from Korea to Japanese, as the latter language also uses a similar set of honourifics, then its easier to convey the precise meaning of the original.
But with a language pair like Arabic and Korean, the difference is going to be much greater. One reason for this is a language’s compactness. This refers to the number of words used to express a thought. Some languages have single words to explain a thought or action, for example, whereas others will use several words. Another way to put, is that a compact is a more efficient language.
Writing in The Atlantic, John McWhorter postulates that the least efficient language is Kabardian, which is spoken in the Caucasus. He notes that in the simple sentence “The men saw me,” the word for “saw” is sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś (pronounced roughly “suck-a-LAGH-a-HESH”).
Why is it becoming more important?
Global audiences are becoming more comfortable with watching content in foreign languages with subtitles. Indeed, many of Netflix’s top hits are foreign language series like Borgen and Call My Agent. Foreign content is also becoming increasingly accessible. If you want to increase your content’s audience, then expert subtitling is the way to go. Contact us today to explore your options.