Squid Game is absolutely blowing up right now, and it’s definitely worth the hype. The South Korean survival drama is racking up millions of views of Netflix, and it doesn’t look anywhere close to slowing down its relentless march. Yet even in the midst of this worldwide success, there seems to be trouble in paradise. Or rather, there seems to be trouble very, very close by, smack-dab at the bottom of the screen, where the subtitles are. It seems that Netflix didn’t quite get it right when translating the original Korean, and that’s a crying shame. But what does this gaffe mean, especially in the world of translation? In this article, we aim to tell you all about it.

Still haven’t gotten around to watching Squid Game? You absolutely should — it’s an engrossing, edge-of-your-seat thriller, and an amazing bit of social commentary. If you’re looking for the perfect antidote for the run-of-the-mill, superficial fare on most streaming platforms, you’ve found it. Squid Game is many things:

  • An enthralling character study.
  • A parable about the dangers of consumer culture.
  • One of the best thrillers in recent years, with a human heart at its core.

But, sadly, it’s something else, and that’s a real-world example of how not to do a translation. Furthermore, in a world where North American viewers are reticent to get into subtitled content, this is even more tragic. At the 2019 Golden Globes, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho bemoaned the world’s fixation on English-language content. Now, it seems that even when we give subtitles a chance, it’s hard to get them right.

Thus, in this article, we’ll go over Squid Game, what makes it a hit, and why adaptations are so important when it comes to content localization. Let’s get a move on!

What’s Squid Game?

Squid Game is a 2021 South Korean survival drama TV series created by Hwang Dong-hyuk. You might not have noticed it, but South Koreans have quietly become dominant in the thriller genre with some mind-blowingly good movies in the past couple of decades. And yes, Squid Game is definitely a prime example of this craft in action.

Squid Game follows Lee Jung-Jae stars as Seong Gi-hun, a man trying to survive a deadly game without compromising his character in the process. Seong Gi-hun is a divorced father who’s estranged from his daughter and deep in debt. If he’s not able to get out of his dire situation, he might lose contact with his daughter altogether. Yet, he receives a mysterious offer that at first seems like a miraculous solution to his predicament. He accepts, and after being kidnapped, he wakes up in a mysterious location filled with other contestants, forced to fight for his life and a $40-million prize in the balance.

Taken at face value, Squid Game is a firing-on-all-cylinders thriller with a prevalent human element. But, when we go beyond the surface, we find a clever bit of social critique with satirical elements. As the phrase goes, “It can be two things,” and Squid Game delivers in spades without beating viewers over the head with how smart it is. Thus, it’s no surprise that the show has become such a smash hit on the internet — it seems that wherever you go, someone is talking about it.

Yet, sadly, the show is also trending for all the wrong reasons. And mostly, it’s because it seems that Netflix has not been very faithful with its adaptation.

Squid Game and Mistranslation

We’ve gone over translation as a part of content localization before in this blog. In our article, we said the following:

Translation refers to accurately conveying information from one language into another. It seems simple, right? While appearances can be deceiving, here are the broad strokes of translation:

  • The translator reads and internalizes the content of a text in the original language. This will hitherto be referred to as the source language.
  • They convey the meaning of the original text into the target, or destination, language.

Again, this may make it seem like a straight-ahead, automatic process. But, in reality, translators have to interpret the meaning of a text and try to accurately convey its content, rather than just the words. Translators are not just thinking about a simple input/output process, as 1/1 translation is not generally possible, not desirable. Not all languages have perfect word analogs that can be used in lieu of one another. There are also idioms, pre-made phrases, colloquialisms, and phrase structures that can make a translator’s life harder.

And how exactly did the Netflix translators miss the mark here? Well, for one, it seems that they wildly changed the meaning behind many sentences, and also missed the broader cultural context that not only gives depth to the characters but helps the story make sense overall. They attempted to simplify phrases for subtitles but completely glossed over the fact that there were alternate meanings that not only didn’t make the subtitles longer (hence harder to read) but also gave the wrong idea. As a result, while the broad strokes of the story remained the same, many important details flew over viewers’ heads.

SquidGame korean translation

How the Debacle Started

Several media outlets like the Atlantic were already causing a fuss over the mistranslation in Squid Game. But things didn’t really go viral until a Korean Tik Tok user, Youngmi Mayer, started pointing out examples of the obvious mistranslations. These went from mild, all the way to egregious, the type that a professional translator would have nightmares about making. Some examples were:

  • “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out,” which would be better translated as “I am very smart; I just never got a chance to study.”
  • “Out here, the torture is worse,” which would work better as “this place is more of a hell.”

And, while these may seem small, they actually change not just the meaning behind these sentences, but the very soul of the characters. Moreover, they completely eradicate the class anxieties and issues of the show’s extraordinarily smart script.

While this may seem like small fry for those not well-versed in translation, it’s not. Still, some people have jumped to Netflix’s defense by saying that these bad subtitles belong to closed captions, which in turn translate the show’s dub. But it still doesn’t exclude Netflix from making a bad translation, both in dub and sub form; it’s a complete debacle that raises the question of how competent a job they might be doing in other genres such as anime.

In fact, it seems that there’s a sort of bad subtitle epidemic. Meaning gets lost in the shuffle, and translators sacrifice fidelity in the name of localization. Or, worse yet, it seems that big companies like Netflix seem to be employing translators that are simply not up to the standards that a primetime show with millions of viewers requires. After all, it’s easy to fail to see a mistranslated dub; there’s no point of comparison. But a good native speaker can spot the error in a subtitle right away, and that’s a public relations issue in the making right then and there. In the 2020s, anyone with a social media account can expose an incompetent translation and leave a company looking foolish.

Why Good Subtitles Are Important

Subtitles are important because they are cost-effective, and maintain the original identity of the product. Additionally, they present an opportunity for more faithful translations that don’t have to alter the original meaning because of time constraints. Also, they are an opportunity for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers to fully engage with content — a necessity for over 36 million people in the US alone.

Of course, the second would be the realm of closed captions — subtitles that also convey even onscreen sounds and music. But it really makes no difference when it comes to content: the translation needs to be on-point every time.  In our article about subbing, we wrote:

Audiences are not always engaged by homogeneity. Even though we live in a world with rapidly-increasing globalization, sameness does not equate with accessibility. That’s why people are looking for authentic experiences with their unique flavoring. Think about it: you don’t travel to Wolfsburg because you want to hear a Texas accent.

It’s the same reason Netflix audiences found German TV show Dark so engaging. Coupled with Spanish runaway hit Money Heist and many others, international shows are here to stay. And, while many will still turn to dubbing, subtitles are a big part of that. In Latin America, as one example, Dark was watched in its native German by most viewers.

And subtitling is not just for the big leagues. In fact, the more you think about cost-effective solutions, the more you want to translate subtitles. Dubbing will always remain an option for your projects but subbing:

  • Preserves the identity of the original
  • Broadens your audience’s perspective
  • It’s just easier to get right. You don’t have to coordinate a full cast of actors, for instance.
  • Cost-effective, if you compare it to dubbing.

(Plus, they’re good for SEO, you know?)

Summing Up About Squid Game and Subtitles

Subtitling is a surefire way to maintain fidelity and give audiences access to completely new content and cultures. But, it needs to be done right, with respect to the source material and culture, and by professionals who know what they’re doing. As you’ve seen, no one is exempt from mistakes, not even multi-billion, market-leading companies. If Squid Game has taught anyone anything, it’s the appalling standards for subtitles in the industry.

Yet, this doesn’t have to be you. If you’re looking for the best subtitlers in the Business, why not give Bunny Studio a call? We’ll make sure that when your translation makes headlines, it’s due to the right reasons!

Hit us up today and we’ll create the perfect subtitles for your content!