The Truth About Subtitling

Subtitling is more art than science, and an extremely important one at that. With Netflix finding success through global hits like Squid Game and Call My Agent, why isn’t it trying harder to find the right words?

"Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” explained the Director of 2020's Oscar-winning Best Film, Bong Joon-ho, as he accepted his award. His remark was a in a not-so-subtle dig at the dominance of English language content. His words are only reinforced by the runaway success of Squid Game, a Korean-language series, where contestants compete in deadly childhood games to win a prize. It has become Netflix’s biggest hit yet, earning the title of its No 1 show in 90 countries. Unwavering fanfare aside, the subtitles in the series are raising questions over whether Netflix is investing enough in creating accurate versions of foreign-language scripts.

Even before Squid Game, some of Netflix’s biggest hits were “foreign language” series, among them Lupin (France), Elite (Spain), Dark (Germany) and Money Heist (Spain). This is partly the result of global viewers being increasingly willing to try new things, often times from cultures and languages alien to them. But it also speaks, perhaps, to a sort of secret fantasy that it's possibe that we understand more in another language than we think. In fact, the optimistic inquiry “Can I speak a language fluently just by watching TV?” yields 10.4 million Google results.

However much we might wish this to be true, the debate around the subtitles to Squid Game suggests the answer is no. “If you don’t understand Korean, you didn’t really watch the same show,” concludes Youngmi Mayer, the New York-based co-host of the podcast Feeling Asian. To cement her point, she released a video online to her followers explaining the shortcomings of the series' subtitles. What could be fixed? One of the lead female characters is represented as more subservient and less intelligent than in Korean. The “grandmother’s footsteps” first game (Red Light, Green Light) is not properly translated, either, and the concept of “gganbu” (a link between two equals – which becomes a major plot point) is glossed over.

With series like Squid Game becoming as successful as they are, some may wonder why people care so much about translation. Says Youngmi Mayer: “I guess you could ask, do people really care about Star Wars? Some people would tell you they don’t care about Star Wars at all. And other people would answer that they’ve based their entire life on it. If one word was mistranslated they would be incredibly angry.”

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