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The recent hit Netflix show Squid Game has caused controversy online after reports that the translation is not correct.
Podcast host Youngmi Mayer caused a stir when she tweeted out that the English translations of the Netflix show were "botched" and that "if you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show". She noted that "zero" of the original dialogue was preserved. So, what happened? How could a huge company like Netflix make such a mess of translating a show like this?
I decided to investigate.
The first thing to understand about translations are that there are different types. One is literal and another is localised. For an example of the problems that translating can cause think about the phrase "bless you". In Japanese no one says "bless you" after someone sneezes so if you were translating a "bless you" in a movie into Japanese, how would you do it?
A literal translation would have you translate the phrase "bless you" into Japanese. That would be weird because it would imply some kind of religious experience. So, you might opt instead to "localize" the dialogue and have someone say something like "caught a cold?" which might express the same level of concern as "bless you".
Localisation explains why the 90s show Pokemon rendered Rice Balls into "donuts". Presumably Western 90s kids had never seen rice balls before and the translator opted to go for a more familiar food.
Another issue with translation is that it often differs depending on whether you are translating for a dub or for subtitles. With dubbing, getting a translation that matches the mouth movements of the actor may take precedence over literal accuracy. If someone says "Get out!" in English, you would look for a similar phrase in the other language which had two syllables (Check this video out for an interesting look at this process).
Rumour has it that the infamous "over 9000" meme (original "over 8000" in Japanese) was dubbed as 9000 because it better fit the mouth movements (I can't find any evidence to support this claim though it would be a curious change to make for no reason).
For subtitles, the main concern is space. Time reading is time not watching the show. Some people are also much slower readers than others and so brevity is key. If you are interested in the rules for subtitles you might want to peruse this Channel 4 guide. For dramas, they allow 38 characters per line. That's about the length of the previous sentence.
All of this means, if you watch a dubbed foreign show with the subtitles on you will find that they don't match at all. Both are good translations but the subs and the dub are working with different constraints.
With further ado, let's take a look at the complaints about Squid Game.
The first one is that one of the female players, Han Mi-Nyeo, swears a lot and the swear words get removed in the translation. The example she gives is when the player says "what are you looking at" and the subtitles say "go away".
The problem with this criticism, as a few twitter users pointed out to her, is that rather than watching the subbed version she seemed to be watching the [CC] closed caption version. As this account points out, the closed caption is a transliteration of the dub. The line is actually correctly translated in the subtitles as "what are you looking at" but in the CC version it's just "go away". But why the difference? As Yuri7 notes, the original Korean phrase is two syllables so the dub opted for the two syllables "go away" presumably to fit the mouth movements better.
The next example Mayer uses is a character who says "I'm not a genius but I can work it out" rather than the correct, "I'm really smart but I never got a chance to study". As it turns out though, Yuri yet again notes that Mayer was watching the closed captions and not the subtitles, which did accurately render that line as "I never bothered to study but I'm unbelievably smart". The Gganbu scene can also be explained as an issues with space and reading the CC instead of the subs.
So this all seems to have been just a simple misunderstanding. No harm, no foul, right?
Perhaps, but something that makes me a little uncomfortable about all of this is the speed at which this spread and was reprinted in several newspapers (for example, in the BBC, the NY post and the Independent.) without really anyone bothering to check the accuracy of it.
I also feel a little sorry for the translator(s) who worked on the show. To her credit, Mayer wrote that it wasn't the fault of translators but the industry which overworks and underpays them. Presumably though, Mayer has no idea if the translating agencies Netflix employ, overwork or underpay employees, but this tweet has 33k likes and so most people will be left with that impression.
Mayer's original tweet has 116k likes and her tiktok video has 2 million. Most people who have seen this story are now left thinking that Netflix subtitles are rubbish and this is because translators are exploited. All of this is because of one person's misunderstanding. Also, rather disappointingly, after having the mistake pointed out to her and admitting she got it wrong, Mayer still has not deleted the original post or published a correction.
*notes: I don't speak Korean and I'm not a translator so if any of the information in this post is wrong let me know and I'll correct it.