The Squid Game translation controversy: Why it’s probably not as clear-cut as you may have originally thought

BBL Translation

At BBLTranslation we are passionate about everything to do with languages and translation. In a constantly evolving society where people are more connected than ever, it’s important to be able to provide a way in which people who speak different languages can interact. One of the biggest talking points, thanks to the advent of streaming services, is often the latest television series, which, as you can probably imagine, requires a considerable amount of translation work if it’s to reach a global audience. We are lovers of languages and so we wanted to write an article about a recent debate surrounding exactly this.

If you haven’t heard of Netflix’s hit show Squid Game by now, you must have been living under a rock (or in an unknown location on an exotic island). The Korean series is set to become the most-watched show in Netflix’s history with more than 142 million households around the World tuning in during its first four weeks after launch on 17th September.

It’s clear why the show has managed to capture the attention of such a large number of people. The engrossing childhood games played by the contestants, which transport viewers back to their own younger days, become darker and more sinister as the show progresses, eliciting a feeling of constantly being on the edge of your seat, as well as evoking a disturbing fascination for what’s to come next.

Not to mention, the spotlight it shines on the destructive capitalist nature of the ones in power, who use the less financially-able competitors as pawns in their twisted game for entertainment.

It really is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

However, soon after its release, Netflix was met by criticism for its rendering of the show’s subtitles into English, and now many people are questioning the streaming service’s ability to produce accurate subtitles for its international consumers.

Bilingual TikTok user, Youngmi Mayer, posted a video on the platform of her explaining the discrepancies between the two languages and giving examples of where the translation from Korean into English had been “botched”. One of these examples being, when the character of Han Mi-Nyeo tries to convince another player to be her partner for one of the games.

Mayer, who speaks fluent Korean, translates Han Mi-Nyeo’s line as “I am very smart, I just never got the chance to study”, whereas Netflix’s subtitles say something quite different, “I’m not a genius but I can work it out”. Now, there is clearly a loss in meaning since one of the leading themes behind the show itself is the fact that the contestants aren’t monetarily wealthy which is highlighted in Han Mi-Nyeo’s line, but this is unfortunately not conveyed through the English rendering.

Here’s the link to the TikTok video if you’d like to see more of Mayer’s examples:

However, as Jinhyun Cho effectively points out in an article written for, subtitling isn’t a simple task, and to be skilled in subtitling means you have to be able to convey the same message which you receive in both the written form of subtitles (translation) as well as in the verbal form of the characters’ speech (interpretation).

Ultimately, this means that subtitling lies somewhere between translation and interpretation, which in itself can be a big feat to overcome, but coupled with the fact that space is extremely limited in subtitling, it can be especially difficult to convey the same connotations.

Furthermore, the challenge becomes even greater when culturally-specific terms, which have no direct translation into the target language, are introduced. The example Cho uses is that of honorifics, she states, “An age-based hierarchy is a key characteristic of Korean society, and people do not call each other by name unless they are friends of the same age.”. Therefore, honorifics are commonly used to refer to another person, “형 (hyung)” or “older brother”, for example. Consequently, it’s no surprise, that there has been some variance in the translation of these complex, yet meaningful, terms into the English language.

Additionally, it is worth clarifying the difference between subtitles and closed captions (CC), as the confusion between the two terms tends to be one of the main reasons behind the controversy.

As Cho explains, the English captions are for people who cannot hear the audio, so these often include extra bits of information such as background noise, which in turn, further limits the amount of space for the translation of speech, unfortunately to the detriment of its meaning. This is a point stressed by one twitter user in response to Mayer’s criticisms, and if you’d like to read more, a link to an article by ABC news is included here.

The recent comments on Netflix’s subtitles have only further enforced the idea that there can never be a perfect translation, and hopefully with well-balanced and detailed articles by people in the industry, such as that by Jinhyun Cho, this reality can broaden to the general viewership, of not just Korean dramas, but all shows which have been rendered into different languages, and an appreciation for the difficulty involved in producing subtitles can develop.

As a translation and interpretation company, we felt it was important to bring this debate to the foreground and give a balanced explanation on the subject. If you enjoyed the article or have something to say on the matter, please leave a comment and let’s have a discussion! If you also happen to be in search of translators of Korean to English or English to Korean, we have a professional and experienced team who can help with any queries.

Photo courtesy of Paul Ma on Pixabay 

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