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The Squid Game or What’s Wrong with the Subtitling?

The Squid Game or What’s Wrong with the Subtitling?

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Good, bad, fake, gimmicky, call it what you will, the Squid Game has won over millions of Netflix fans all over the world. But, alas, it’s set in South Korea and the English subtitling kind of betrays the story. Wildly, according to some.

What made this story so special?

The Squid Game’s story gyrates around a group of semi-destitute contestants who join in to play deadly dangerous adaptations of children’s games for the chance to win $40 million.

Seeing its popularity rise by the hour since it hit the small screen, the Squid Game has turned the heads of film critics, with some arguing it could have been better if… And that’s exactly what you’re just about to discover.

The English Subtitling, what follows after “if”

One of the Squid Game’s avid fans, who also happens to be fluent in Korean, shared a video on TikTok (which soon became viral) that the English subtitles betrayed the context, sidelining all the “juice” in parts of the dialogue.

“The dialogue was so well written and zero of it was preserved [in the subtitles]”, said Youngmi Mayer in a tweet. Especially in the case of character 212, whose lines were decontextualised, Mayer says.

Localization & Transcreation in Video Gaming

Han Mi-nyeo, aka Kim Joo-ryeong or character 212, is one of the most controversial players of the Squid Game. She is a cocksure, fearless woman who is not afraid to outsmart the guards holding the power of life and death over players and often fights 101, aka Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), who bullies her constantly.

In a specific scene, Mi-nyeo has an awkward English replica that reads, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out. Huh”. As per Mayer’s translation posted on TikTok, the actual line in Korean means “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study”, meaning that Mi-nyeo is probably “street smart”, without a formal education like most of the Squid Game participants.

This is only one of the numerous examples of Korean pop culture, imbued with deep meanings lost in the English translation (no pun intended). It’s perhaps one of the most vivid examples of mistranslation, considering the significance of the information it reveals about the contestants’ backgrounds. Some are literally raised on the street, and others have a very sophisticated education, some even with distinctions.

Judging by how the guards and masterminds of the Squid Game have inoculated the idea of promoting fairness and equality in contestants’ minds, the discrepancy between their backgrounds, skills and abilities rifts the narrative.

Given that Youngmi’s TikTok post has scored over 1 million views and her tweets have also been retweeted countless times, some Squid Game lovers argue that there is another English subtitle option available, and Youngmi focuses on the closed captioning subtitles, not on the English subtitle option. Closed captions are automatically generated and hence, less accurate than actual subtitles.

From the woods into the clearing

Since then, Youngmi herself acknowledged that the English subtitles are “substantially better” than the closed captions. However, even the English language subtitling lacks the colourfulness of the original Korean dialogue. “The misses in the metaphors – and what the writers were trying to actually say – are still pretty present”, she said.

Eventually, any rookie-isms, lack of vigour and expressivity in English are blamed on the lack of “respect” for translation work and “the sheer volume of content”. “Translators are underpaid and overworked, and it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of producers who don’t appreciate the art”, Youngmi concludes. In part, she’s right. Translation is an art. We can prove it. Let’s play the big game!
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