Last year, Netflix aired a Korean TV series called Squid Game, and it became a massive hit. However, many native Koreans complained on the internet that they saw multiple inaccuracies in the show's (translated) English subtitles.
Today, we will talk a bit about the art of translation, point out some concrete errors with Squid Game's subtitle translations, and then look at what those errors might be able to teach us about the art of translation.
Squid Game's English Subtitle Controversy
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Squid Game's subtitles, let's first explain what the show is all about.
Squid Game is a nine-episode series in which a group of people are invited to play games and potentially earn a lot of money. Most of the people invited are desperate for money, so they choose to participate, and are then brought to a secluded and unknown location where they have to survive a variety of games. The games are all based on children's games, but have violent twists. Though participants could walk away at any time, they choose to stay and compete, risking their lives for a chance at 45.6 million Won (~38 million USD).
The show brings up a lot of societal and economic themes, but many native Korean speakers pointed out that the series’ English subtitles failed to capture them or the metaphors alluding to them. Not only an issue that’s limited to Netflix, however, we see these sort of inaccuracies in translating Korean to English across different mediums — not only in the translated subtitles of Korean TV shows, but also in Manhwas (Korean comic books) and video games.
We have to wonder just how hard it is to translate from Korean to English, and vice-versa.
Why it's difficult to translate Korean into English
Translation is much more than simply going through a dictionary and swapping one Korean word out for an English one. In a lot of ways, it's an art. If you asked ten translators to translate something, you could well end up with ten different translations. This is especially so for fiction, where there may not be an established "corporate tone" to write in and a lot has been left up to the writer's imagination.
Source texts heavily reflect on the people and society they came from, so there's a lot of pressure on Korean translators to deliver the meaning of a text as faithfully as possible. Doing so requires both a cultural understanding of Korean society and the linguistic nuisances of the language’s literary devices and structure.
Korean-to-English translation is difficult because of the languages’ sentence structure: there is a wide gap between the Indo-European (English) and the Altaic (Korean) language family. To give one small example, whereas English has a subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure, Korean has a subject-object-verb (SOV) format.
- 나는 피자 먹어요 .
naneun pija meog-eoyo.
Natural translation: I eat pizza
Literal translation: I pizza eat.
As you might imagine, things get much more complex when you're dealing with bigger sentences and more complicated thoughts. Some sentences that sound very natural in Korean might be unnatural in English, putting translators in a difficult situation: do they stick as close to the original text as possible, even if the resulting translation is awkward? Or do they translate the sentence so that the main idea of the Korean sentence gets communicated naturally in English, even if doing so means that the translator has to stray from what a particualr character actually said?
There are significant cultural differences between Korean culture and the culture in places where English is spoken, and these cultural differences can affect how certain ideas are expressed — or if a certain idea is expressed as all. To go in another direction, some things might not be explicitly stated in the source text because it is seen to be common knowledge, a reality that can cause difficulties when that knowledge isn't common in another culture.
For example, Korean makes heavy use of honorifics. In the same way that English has concrete grammar constructions to show whether something is future tense or past tense, Korean has concrete constructions that shows the social statuses of people in a given social interaction. In other words, it's incredibly transparent where different people feel they fit into a power structure and/or how close one person feels they are to another person. Things aren't as apparent in English, which puts translators in a difficult spot: do they add extra words to make that "obvious in Korean" information apparent to oblivious English viewers? Can they do so without ruining the pacing of a particular scene? If a character is only talking for 1.5 seconds, is there enough additional room to squeeze in those extra details?
Simply put, translating from Korean to English can be tricky.
Some "mistakes" in Squid Game's English Subtitles
The immediate backlash surrounding Squid Game’s subtitles came from a failure to provide the (foreign) audience with context. Completely understanding the television show requires an understanding of Korean culture, and most foreign viewers watching the show with English subtitles likely lack that background knowledge. While it's impossible to cram an entire cultural upbringing into a few lines of dialogue, the show could have done a better job connecting important cultural dots for viewers.
More simply put, many fans believe that mistranslations affected how the show's story and characters were perceived. Here are two examples. (There are many.)
One of the show's competitors, Mi-nyeo, is a gangster. She talks in a very particular way in Korean, and a lot of her dialogue gets botched in the English subtitles. For example, in episode six, Mi-nyeo is looking for a partner for an upcoming game. She brags to Gi Hun saying:
- 공부를 안해서 그렇지 머리는 장난아니라니까.
gongbuleul anhaeseo geuleohji meolineun jangnan-anilanikka.
(According to the translateed subtitles) “I’m not a genius, but I can work it out.”
What many pointed out is that the translations should have been along the lines of: “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.”
It might not seem like a big difference, but this bit of dialogue reveals a characteristic trait of Mi-nyeo, and the English subtitle completely missed it. Mi-nyeo is fulfilling a common character trope of Korean TV shows: she's smart, but poor, and wasn’t able to get a higher education. The entire point of her character was to show how (Korean) society discriminates against people with a low educational background, but the English subtitles didn't do justice to this aspect of her character, and fans who are fluent in Korean are understandably angry about it.
What "Gganbu" share
Warning: this section contains a spoiler. Skip it if you haven't seen the show yet.
Another example of poorly translated dialogue can be found in episode six. This episode is called “Gganbu”, a term that means something like “a really close friend.” This episode includes an important line of dialogue from the old man:
- 깐부끼리는 네 거, 내 거가 없는 거야.
kkanbukkilineun ne geo, nae geoga eobsneun geoya.
(According to the translate subtitles) "Gganbu always share everything with each other, no matter what.”
This was a pivotal moment in the show because it showed that the old man had known about Gi Hun’s deception the whole time. Having said that, many fans have pointed out that a proper translation of this dialogue would have been “Between Gganbu, there is no yours or mine.”
Again, the translations are similar, but there’s a difference: the original translation is a pretty matter of fact statement, whereas our alternate translation is a little bit more intimate, a bit more personal. It has a certain emotional weight to it. This emotionality should have been brought out in the subtitles because it provides an important bit of context: the old man (intentionally) loses — dies — so that Gi Hun can keeps on playing. Because they’re Gganbu.
What is considered a "good" translation?
Edward Seidensticker, a prominent American historian and Japanese translator, once said in 1969: "translation is forever impossible, and yet it is forever necessary."
Part of the reason translation is "impossible" is that there are a nearly infinite amount of variables that one could consider, not all of which a translator can control. Consider the world's most translated book, the Bible — what an academic and what a typical churchgoer want out of a Bible translation are not the same. A translation that succeeds with an academic may fail with a typical person, and vice versa.
While it's hard (perhaps impossible) to define what makes a translation "good", my personal experience is that four particular factors are especially important:
- The translator's skill and expertise
- Who the target audience is (what do the people who will consume the translation want out of it?)
- The tone and mood of the original text, and how well that is conveyed in the translation
- Socio-cultural aspects of the original text, and how successfully they are conveyed in the translation
Failing on any of these dimensions will drastically affect the outcome of a translation, regardless of which languages are being translated from and to.
Nevertheless, several institutions have created different ways to communicate competency/quality of a given translator. For agencies specializing in Korean-to-English translation services, translations and/or translation services that have achieved International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification are internationally accepted by various private and public institutions.
Different approaches to translation
There are many different ways to answer the question of what makes a "good" translation, and many famous translators throughout history have come to different conclusions about what makes a translation successful. In very simplistic terms, sometimes it's more important to translate the words of a text, and other times it's more important to translate the ideas expressed by a text.
To make that determination, translators ask questions like:
- What is the objective of this translation?
- How faithful should the translation be to the source text? (legal documents might require very strict translations, but that might not be as important in something like a piece of music)
- Would the audience understand the text if it was translated literally? (for example, if the idiom fed up was translated literally into another language, it would likely make no sense)
- Is it more important to capture the essence of a text (the message the author wanted to communicate) or the specific wording of that message?
- Is your interpretation of the text the only one, or could it be interpreted in multiple ways?
An exercise in translation to try
As an exercise in thought to see how this can quickly become complicated, imagine you were trying to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 into Korean: shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
- Do you give priority to the rhyme scheme (which lines rhyme with which lines — here, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG)?
- Do you give priority to the "rhythm" of the sentences (the syllables of the poem are alternately emphasized, giving it a di–DAH-di-DAH rhythm — this is called iambic pentameter)?
- Do you give priority to faithfully replicating the double meanings behind many of the poem's vocabulary choices?
- Do you give priority to faithfully replicating the poem's junctures (which syllables connect with which syllables), something that dramatically effect how the poem feels rolling off one's tongue?
- Do you give priority to translating the words — the pictures that Shakespeare was painting with the poem?
- Do you give priority to translating the intent/meaning of the poem, which is often subtle and something more than the sum of the individual words?
- Do you give priority to making the ideas the poem expresses more accessible to Koreans? (Inherent assumptions of the poem is that summer is lovely, desirable and fleeting — but do Koreans share those associations? What if "summer" means something else to a Korean person?"
Oftentimes, you can't cover all of these bases. An immediate issue, for example, is that the Korean words for day (날 / nal ) and May (오월 / owol) do not rhyme. Suddenly you must choose between maintaining the poem's rhyme scheme or maintaining the poem's wording.
Believe it or not, these are merely some questions translators have to ask themselves as they translate a text. Different translators will end up deciding that different things are more or less important, and these decisions will affect how their translation ends up looking. This is a big part of qhy the qualities of translations vary so much, and also why academics or serious fans might find it worthwhile to peruse multiple different translations of the sams thing (or consider learning the other language themselves!)
Why Literal Translations Aren't Always The Best Option
To understand where translators are coming from with the above issue, let's look deeper into what makes literal and semantic translations different from one another. Professionals in the global translation industry have long debated which is better.
- Literal translations: Some believe a translation should stick as closely to the source language as possible, even if that translation is not as natural as it could be in the target language
- Semantic translations: Others think that the best way to translate a text is by finding a balance between the literal and figurative meaning of that text, then expressing the same ideas the original author wished to communicate in a way that would feel natural to readers from another language and culture
As you might imagine, there are some inherent problems with both options. Literal translations can be confusing for people unfamiliar with Korea or Korean, both due to differences in sentence structure and also because of differences in culture. Certain words and phrases are just used differently from culture to culture and/or may have different connotations. All of these disconnects blur the original meaning, and if the message gets too blurry, foreign viewers won’t be able to connect all the dots necessary to follow a literal translation.
That luxury (the ability to connect dots) can only be afforded to viewers by translators. As such, many translators opt to use semantic translations to make the text more approachable to foreign viewers. Another reason a translator would take the semantic approach in translating Korean documents to English is to make sure the document is in compliance with the target language's legal systems or cultural business practices. (Ideally, a translator would find a natural way to cue readers in on these semantic details and do so in a way that sticks closely to the original text, but that's not always possible.)
For many translators and language learner alike, employing semantic translation is a sign that they have achieved advanced level mastery of their language. They’re comfortable enough communicating in both languages that they can recognize times when the most natural way to express a certain idea in one language is not the most natural way to express it in another language, and adjust their utterances accordingly.
Squid Game brought a lot of attention to the importance of translations and how errors, even minor ones, can drastically change a story's themes and how its characters appear to be depicted. The backlash this series received exposed many issues in Korean translation services — and, generally, across the global translation industry.
As the Korea Times reported: "...for today's hypermodern, globalized Korea, translation has now taken center stage, and those who undertake it must tread carefully."