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The Squid Game subtitles drama, explained

When a TikToker dissected the show's shaky translation, others pointed out her mistakes. But the conversation is more nuanced than that.

by Douglas Greenwood
|
04 October 2021, 1:06pm

Netflix

Over the past few days, dystopian South Korean series Squid Game has broken records and become the most watched show on Netflix in 80+ countries. But the version most westerners are watching, in Korean with English subtitles, has caused some controversy, with some users on TikTok and Twitter pointing out the simplifications in the show’s translation. Essentially, they were saying: if you’re watching it with subtitles, you might be missing out on important elements of the show’s true meaning. Over the weekend though, it seems like there’s an easy explanation for much of the issues raised. Here’s what was said about the Squid Game subtitles drama, and what was debunked. 

For anyone unsure of the plot, the show introduces us to down-and-out gambling addict Seong Gi-hun, who is on the brink of facing the deadly consequences of his reckless actions. Desperate, he joins a competition of children’s games with the chance of winning 45.6 billion South Korean won (a few thousand shy of £30 million). The kicker? Those who don’t make it to the end will die trying. 

It was comedian TikToker @youngmimayer who first suggested that many nuances of the character dynamics and the show will have gone over our heads if we don’t speak Korean. In an initial video, she pointed out glaring issues with what she assumed were the English translation subtitles, particularly tied to the way Mi-nyeo -- a fraudster who constantly switches her allegiances -- speaks and describes herself. In one scene, she’s trying to convince the others in the group to play the game with her. The subtitles read: “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out [sic]”. But Youngmi claims Mi-nyeo actually says: “I’m very smart, I just never got the chance to study”. That, Youngmi says, is a reflection of “a huge trope in Korean media”: a whip smart and wise person who was seen as never reaching their full potential because they couldn’t afford to go to college. 

But in a later video, after issues with that framing were raised by others on TikTok, Youngmi clarified that these subtitles were, in fact, closed captions (subtitles for those who may be deaf or hard of hearing). In some cases, where the watcher can’t gauge the tone of someone’s voice, simplified phrases might be used to ensure the general intention and attitude of a character. But still, a handful of those errors Youngmi pointed out at first are carried over into the actual show’s English translation subtitles.

Most notably, she points out the changing title of episode one, known in English as “Red Light, Green Light”. However, Youngmi points out that the original title translates to “The day the mugunghwa flower blossomed”, a riff on the game’s Korean name “The mugunghwa flower has blossomed”. The mugunghwa flower is the national flower of Korea; the act of blossoming suggests beginnings. But by translating it into English as “Red light, green light” that cultural nuance is removed. 

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There’s also a scene in episode six, titled “Gganbu”, in which the translation of a line overlooks its real meaning. What’s translated as “Gganbu, we share everything” is actually “Gganbu, there is no ownership between me and you”. According to @youngmimayer, it suggests “a difference in ideology that the writer is trying to get across”, highlighting the power dynamic between Seong Gi-hun and the Old Man, Oh Il-nam. 

With the original video blowing up, receiving millions of views over the weekend, it’s likely we’ll see more dissections of Squid Game’s shaky subtitles in the near future. Truth be told, there’s only one way to bypass the subtitles drama, and that’s to boot up your DuoLingo and learn Korean yourself. Good luck!

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