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Squid Game subtitles ‘changed meaning’ of Netflix show – were the English subtitles for Squid Game a failure, or is there more nuance to the argument?

Squid Game – the Korean-language drama that likely needs no introduction.

The Netflix phenomenon took the world by storm, reaching number 1 in 90 countries worldwide, with just over 142 million households accessing the show within its first month on the streaming site.

For those who haven’t seen Squid Game (don’t worry, we won’t spoil it!), it follows a group of desperate adults as they compete in children’s games with deadly consequences. 

So, why did the show become a global hit?

Simply put, it’s an entertaining series!

However, themes of economic disparity and human struggles, grounded by the simplicity of the games, also helped the show to resonate with a global audience.

The show’s widespread translation, with subtitles in 37 languages and dubbed audio in 34 languages, helped it spread across multiple territories.

And it seems like that was the plan all along:

“The reason ‘Squid Game’ has such great meaning for us internally is that its perfect evidence that our international strategy has been right.”

 – Minyoung Kim, Netflix VP of Content for Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Subtitle Debate

However, despite its popularity and international strategy, Squid Game’s English subtitles and closed captions have faced criticism – “Squid Game’s “botched” subtitles have changed the show’s meaning for English-speaking viewers, some Korean-speaking fans say.”

Tiktoker, Youngmi Mayer, sparked the subtitles of Squid Game debate, believing that some of the dialogue’s emotion and sentiment was lost in translation, which in some cases, changed the meaning of the show.  

Generally, Youngmi Mayer debates that the social commentary of the drama is somewhat downplayed and that some of the characterisations are slightly inaccurate.

It is worth noting that, originally, the debate seemingly started over the English closed captions, where direct translation isn’t entirely the focus. 

For clarity, traditional closed captions can be turned off and on, and usually include a slightly condensed version of what is being spoken; allowing for all the text to fit on the screen during a certain amount of time.

The Other Side of the Subtitle Debate

As the debate went viral on social media and news outlets, many in the language & multimedia industries may have felt the nuances of subtitling weren’t being addressed enough.

That’s not to say anyone was right or wrong, but there is certainly more to the debate than meets the eye.

The Different Types of Subtitles

As mentioned above, some confusion may have arisen over the differences between various types of subtitles – with open captions, SDH subtitles, and subtitles for various other languages all in the mix.

Again, traditional closed captions can be turned on and off and include what is being said, or at the very least, a condensed version that fits on screen.

On the other hand, open captions cannot be turned off and are “burnt” into the video. Meaning 10 different languages would need 10 different versions of the video content.

SDH subtitles are for the deaf and hard of hearing community and are specifically designed to be accessible and descriptive of sounds. These are usually condensed closed captions, which include sound effects, descriptions of soundtracks, and more. 

SDH subtitles can be translated; however, it is very likely the translated text is made more concise to accommodate audio descriptions.

The Reasons Subtitles Are Not Always Perfect

As the different types of subtitles have various purposes, what will appear on the screen may vary.

Further differences may also come from the rules set up by streaming companies, who will want subtitles to be certain lengths, to allow viewers to read them in a certain time frame.

As an example, a speaker may say a long sentence very quickly in a scene, so viewers won’t be able to read the subtitles within the same scene unless the subtitles are shortened.

In subtitle translation, this can apply to the differences in sentences lengths between two languages. What takes two seconds to say in Korean, could be four sentences in English if translated directly – so adjustments are made to keep the subtitles readable and accessible.

Dubbed Content

Things get slightly more complicated when dubbed audio and scripts are thrown into the pot.

However, to try and explain simply, sometimes subtitles are created from the dubbed script and not the original source language script.

In the case of Squid Game, although the audio may be in Korean, the English captions may be formed from the dubbed script and not the Korean script – hence why they don’t match up. 

Dubbed content usually isn’t completely accurate, as sentences may be shortened or lengthened to focus on having the dubbed audio match the characters mouth movements and expressions.

Cultural Differences

Although the debate did recognise that cultural differences can cause various changes to translated subtitles, it is still worth discussing the concept in this blog post.

Simply due to cultural differences and understanding, some parts of dialogue are very hard to translate between two languages. Therefore, they may be left out.

In the case of Korean to English, Korean honorifics are the best example.

This is relatively hard to explain when looking through the lens of the English language, but in the most basic sense, the Korean language uses honorifics to recognise social relationships, age, gender, social status, etc.

Translators can try their best to express honorifics in English, but ultimately, it is understandably very difficult.

Netflix will also want to be accessible to all audiences, so will not want to assume viewers know Korean culture and language.

To Summarise…

The subtitle debate surrounding Netflix’s Squid Game has been very interesting!

Although nuances and difficulties must be considered, there is certainly a need for subtitles to be of better quality. With the original sentiment of dialogue being retained as best as possible across languages.

As the demand for ‘subbed’ and ‘dubbed’ content grows, this is a topic that will likely be discussed even more in the future.

Get in touch with us to talk Squid Games, subtitling, dubbing or accessibility. We’d love to hear from you!