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Lost in translation? The one-inch truth about Netflix’s subtitle problem

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“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” So said the director Bong Joon-ho, as he accepted his best picture Oscar for Parasite in 2020, in a not-so-subtle dig at the dominance of English language content. The success of Netflix’s Korean series Squid Game, where contestants compete in deadly playground games to win a cash prize, has proved him more than right. It has become Netflix’s biggest hit yet, earning the title of its No 1 show in 90 countries, mostly within days of release and eclipsing even the mighty Bridgerton. But it has also sparked an intense debate about what gets lost in that one-inch block of text – and raised 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 about global viewers being increasingly open to seeking out the best entertainment experiences. But it also speaks, perhaps, to a sort of secret fantasy that we might understand more in another language than we think. In the same way that everyone who lapped up the Danish series Borgen convinced themselves they could speak Danish just because they could say “Tak, tak, Staatsminister” (“Yes, yes, Prime Minister”) in a dodgy Scandinavian accent, so viewers turned to French slang YouTube videos to try to decode their best bits from Call My Agent. 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. She released a TikTok video unpicking the flaws in Squid Game’s subtitles, which has had more than 12m views. Her gripes? One of the lead female characters (Han Mi-nyeo, played by Kim Joo-ryung) 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.

Related: Lights, camera, caption! Why subtitles are no longer just for the hard of hearing

Squid Game’s “lost in translation” moments have even tipped over into accusations of cultural and political bias. “Netflix is notorious for its weak translations of Korean dramas,” wrote Sharon Kwon in Slate. Alongside many others online, Kwon highlighted the translation of “sir” instead of “boss” – as used by the Pakistani character Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) to defer to others – arguing that by not using the latter, it lessens the impact of the anti-capitalist message of the series. Vice’s Eileen Cho wrote: “How will people learn about our culture if the streamer is mistranslating the language?”

Watching the show as a non-Korean speaker, I experienced the Staatsminister-style joy of hearing the words “steakhouse”, “chicken” and “ice-cream” and deluding myself momentarily that I could understand some Korean. Then I realised that, yes, some of these subtitles did feel awkward. Is “darn” a word that anyone would say? It popped up repeatedly. Similarly, in the first episode, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) uses the word “gosh” four times. Which you might believe, if saying “gosh” was something the character was known for. But he doesn’t say it again for the rest of the series.

The debate around Squid Game’s subtitles has performed a service, though, in revealing the difference between subtitles, closed captions and dubbing. Netflix’s algorithm sets your choice automatically to dubbing, which is why if you click on any foreign language content, the actors will mysteriously appear on your screen speaking fluent American English that almost-but-not-quite matches their mouth movements. “Closed captions” were initially devised for deaf viewers and include audio description. (“A door slams.”) The dialogue used on closed captions is usually a direct transcript of the dubbing script. Subtitles use another script entirely. These, too, are subject to constraints: the translation has to fit across the screen and correspond to a preset reading speed. But they are often seen as a more accurate translation than the dubbing script. Subtitling legend and film critic Darcy Paquet, who worked on Parasite, tweeted: “I didn’t do the subtitles for Squid Game, but note that for this show there are two sets of English subtitles. There are the “real” English subtitles, and there is the transcription of the dubbed version [closed captions]. Choose the real subtitles!”

Viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, however, don’t have the choice between the subtitle script and the dubbing script. And many fans are irritated that Netflix seems to be investing more heavily in dubbing than in subtitles. Between 2015 and 2020 Netflix invested $700m over five years in Korean films and television. After the success of Squid Game, this year alone it is putting $500m into Korean content. You would think the question of accurate translation would figure as a priority.

These conversations have been going on in the subtitling world for some time. A dubbing script translation is always going to be less accurate as it faces two challenges. First, it must translate a phrase in such a way that it takes exactly the same amount of time to say out loud in both languages. Second, if there is any opportunity to copy the mouth movements, then you’re supposed to take it. This is why in Squid Game the Korean honorific “oppa” was translated as “old man” in the dubbing script. It’s “babe” in the subtitle script. In fact, in Korean it’s a term of respect meaning “older brother.”

Related: Squid Game: the hellish horrorshow taking the whole world by storm

Max Deryagin, based in Perm, Russia, is the chair of Subtle, the Subtitler’s Association, an international group of freelance subtitlers campaigning for the recognition of subtitling as a professional trade and an essential art form. Deryagin has been subtitling English to Russian for 11 years and did the Russian subtitles for the Netflix films Birdbox and Mank, the streamer’s series Orange Is the New Black, and David Lynch’s short film What Did Jack Do?, also released on Netflix. He watched the latter 15 times before trying to translate it (“I was so excited that I could barely sleep. Any complex film is exciting to translate as you need to understand it to convey it. Imagine doing that for Twin Peaks.”) The abundance of content has caused a “talent crunch” in subtitling in recent years, he says. There just aren’t enough translators to go round: “Netflix has so much programming that they have changed our industry profoundly.”

Deryagin explains how differences between different languages present challenges for him and his peers. “English is considered compact, like Japanese and Chinese. Arabic and Spanish not so much.” These differences have huge ramifications if you are trying to fit a translation into a few words on screen while respecting the viewer’s reading speed. The Scandinavians are the most experienced at all this, he says. “In Scandinavia, they believe in longer subtitles that linger. The reading speed is around 12 characters a second. But in other countries they want shorter subtitles that preserve more of the dialogue but retain the gist.” (If this sounds an impossible task, then that’s pretty much because it is.) Subtitlers are constantly cutting out “filler words” (um, er, you know). With closed captions, the constraints are even greater: “You need the translation to fit the lip movements of the actor. Sometimes you have to take big liberties.”

Youmee Lee, a deaf Korean American artist, wishes that Netflix – and other streaming services – would put more effort into monitoring the translation process. “For non-English films, closed captions should be an accessible version of the official English subtitles,” says Lee. “I did watch the first episode [of Squid Game], and it was painful for me to see [the differences between] the subtitles and closed captions. Both were missing specific information. Streaming services should be cohesive with translation and accessibility. We, the deaf viewers, deserve access to the same information as hearing viewers so we all can share the experience.”

What these debates really reveal, perhaps, is the depth of emotional investment in these bingeworthy shows. Of course, non-native speakers will miss nuances. This can be obvious from the subtitles themselves and it only makes you study the actor’s performances even harder to make up for it. Which is hugely satisfying in Squid Game, as the acting is extraordinarily good. After all, any English speaker would have flinched at the expression used in episode eight: “You always have to get in trouble to know it’s trouble.” (What?) The real translation is: “You always eat it before you can tell whether it’s shit or doenjang [brown fermented soya bean paste].” You don’t have to speak Korean – or even have tried doenjang – to get it.

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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