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.
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.
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”).
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.
In 2010, a Pro-Cantonese Movement （廣州撐粵語行動）erupted in the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province, the epicentre of the modern Cantonese dialect we hear today.
It was triggered when the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Guangzhou Committee submitted a proposal to keep Cantonese in mainstream media in order to preserve the ancient dialect, which was at odds with Beijing’s blanket directive to standardize Mandarin throughout all provinces.
As expected, these remarks propelled the topic to the top of the leaderboard on Weibo and other Chinese social media sites. The majority of netizens speaking up were from Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province, defending the language in a myriad of creative ways. Notably a comedic modification of the poster for Echoes of the Rainbow, a popular Hong Kong movie released in 2010. It was modified to “The Thief who smashes Cantonese” featuring Ji Keguang, the most prominent proponent of Mandarin standardization.
But it is not uncommon for multiple languages to co-exist in a single location. In fact, 3 of the top 4 most multilingual countries in the world are located in Asia (Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India), with China ranking 6th on this list, with 300 different spoken languages located within its borders.
So why did this Cantonese versus Mandarin debate in particular garner such attention from the masses? How is it any different from China’s 299 other languages? To understand this, we need to take a deeper dive into the history of the language.
One of the main reasons Cantonese is of such interest is perhaps because it is significantly older than Mandarin. It was first recorded after the fall of the Han dynasty, around 220AD, over 2000 years ago. In contrast, Mandarin only came into being around 100 years ago. In addition, Cantonese came into being through natural evolution, whereas Mandarin was a top-down ‘creation’, made for a specific purpose: unification and simplification.
A map depicting where Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken, along with many of China’s other languages.
In February 1913, the ‘Unification of Pronunciation Conference’ was held in Beijing to examine and approve the standard pronunciation, known as ‘GuoYin’（國音）of over 6500 Chinese characters. Through a series of complicated voting, the version of Chinese we now know as ‘Mandarin’ was born. The voters hailed from all over China, many in fact preferring to speak Cantonese or Sichuanese (amongst others), yet the final result resembles most closely what was spoken in Beijing at the time.
From 1955 onwards, Mandarin was referred to as Putonghua（普通話）, meaning ‘common’ （普）and ‘universal’（通）.
The then-Head Minister of Ministry of Education Zhang Xiruo said at the time:
The common language of the Han nationality has long existed. Now it is named Putonghua. It needs to be further regulated and standardised. This is Mandarin with the northern dialect as the base dialect and Beijing phonetics as the standard pronunciation. For simplicity, this national common language can also be called Putonghua.
In 1982, only 40 years ago, Beijing enacted the ‘Tuipu policy’, whose purpose is to make Putonghua the nation’s only language. This has numerous advantages for the country’s economy and leadership, creating a homogenous society across China’s enormous landmass and simplifying trade, communication, education, and much more.
It was a logical move to boost economic development which China so desperately needed at the time in order to catch up with the developed nations of the world. But at what cost to the diversity of ethnic cultures and local identity? What’s more, with the rise of technology and seamless translation software now readily available, is communication in different languages even a hindrance to economic development anymore?
We at Into23 would argue that a language barrier creates a competitive advantage for those willing to put in the effort to localise their products. As a result Into23 has built relationships with hundreds of incredible companies expanding into and out-of China. All of whom understand the importance of language as a cultural identifier, and are working hard to solidify their presence in their local area through accurate translocalisation thanks to Into23.
This idea of localising communication is particularly prevalent in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, where many, especially young people, are beginning to question their Chinese identity. An annual poll run by the University of Hong Kong found that even though the proportion of the population that can speak mandarin fluently has doubled since the handover in 1997, only 31% of people said they felt proud to be Chinese nationals, the lowest ever recorded. In fact, according to Chan Shui-duen, a professor of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, many young people “just reject it”.
The streets of Hong Kong, where both Mandarin and Cantonese are equally prevalent.
Against this backdrop, it is understandable that Cantonese is not just surviving but actually thriving. According to linguistics expert Lau Chaak-ming, businesses are picking up on the importance of playing to the local Cantonese identity. Writing in vernacular Cantonese (as opposed to standard Chinese) has increasingly appeared in public advertisements, magazines and other targeted media in the last 10 years, even “greatly accelerating” in the last four years.
60 million Cantonese speakers worldwide is a very considerable audience and as such should be considered when moving in to the China market. Translating your content from standard Chinese to vernacular Cantonese is often the difference between your product launch succeeding and failing.
Whether you are just curious or looking for multimedia localisation services, audio and video transcription services, E-learning translation services, website localisation, or indeed any kind of written or spoken translocalisation, please fill in the contact form and we would be happy to discuss the intricacies of translocalisation for multilingual Asian audiences.