Squid Game's subtitles: lost in translation?

November 10, 2023

Popular Netflix show Squid Game has broken viewing records but is now sparking debate over its “botched” subtitles.

Whilst viewers can choose to watch dubbed versions of the show, those who rely on English subtitles may find that they aren’t 100% accurate.

But exactly how much is getting lost in translation? Are Squid Game’s English subtitles offering viewers a completely different show?

To dig deeper, we spoke to the localisation experts here at Busuu.

Why is it hard to translate subtitles into another language?

Busuu’s head of localisation, Christiane Bark, had this to say on the subject of translating subtitles:

“Like with all translations, meanings sometimes have to be adapted and some of the details get lost in translation because languages can’t be translated directly meaning translators have to find the closest meaning in their language. 

“In some cases, however, the translated subtitles are missing vital information or are gross mistranslations, often due to the lack of context given to the translator. 

“Some subtitles have to simplify what is being said as there is limited space and time to display text for viewers to read.”

Why don’t Squid Game’s subtitles reflect what’s actually being said?

Our Korean Translator and Localisation Specialist, Heeyeon Noh, points out three main reasons why Squid Game’s English subtitles don’t fully represent what the characters are actually saying in Korean.

1. There’s no easy way to translate different forms of address

Throughout the show, there are subtle differences in how characters address each other that are tricky to translate into English.  Korean us a range of addresses depending on the gender, hierarchy, and intimacy of people in a conversation. Most of these addresses don’t have direct equivalents in English, which makes it tricky to translate them. 

For example, women use the word oppa older men, but it translates different depending on the relationship. It could mean an older brother, a close older male friend, or a man you’re dating or in a relationship with. In order to choose the right term to translate oppa to, it’s important to figure out which type of relationship someone is referring to. 

2. The characters’ foul language is watered down

A lot of the strong language in Squid Game is either missing, simplified, or weakened in the translated English subtitles. One reason for this is that Korean has a lot of variety when it comes to swear words. This meant that some of the omissions in subtitles are to avoid repetitiveness (for example, saying the ‘f-word’ several times in the same sentence).

However, in other instances, subtitles used less offensive swear words in place of more severe ones. For example, a string of ‘f-word’s might be swapped with the odd ‘damn’. This diluted the personalities of the characters and sparked a lot of debate among Korean speakers. 

3. Subtitle character counts don’t do Korean nuances justice 

Lastly, a lot of nuances in Korean make it difficult to portray the full meaning of a phrase in English. One reason Korean to English translators drop nuances is character limits. Transcribed Korean translated into English is generally around 10 to 20 percent longer than the allotted subtitle space. Therefore cutting nuances is sometimes a way to fit within the character limits.

Another reason is that Korean is much more nuanced than English. Switching a consonant or vowel, a particle, a sentence ending or word order can result in subtle changes in the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I like it.” in English translates in about two dozen ways in Korean. 

Our overall, slightly biased, take? If you’re a fan of foreign language shows why not learn their original languages?

Whilst subtitles are great, watching a show in its original ‘flavour’ gives a viewing experience subtitles are unable to match.

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