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Netflix’s Squid Game in “botched” subtitles row over mistranslations of story

Netflix’s new series Squid Game has come under fire over “gross mistranslations” in the subtitles.

The real meaning of the events in the hit show may be totally lost on viewers, a language expert has warned.

Squid Game has overtaken period drama Bridgerton as Netflix’s biggest ever series launch but “botched” subtitles may be preventing English-speaking viewers from properly understanding the story.

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Viewers can choose to watch a dubbed English version of the show but a Korean translator says those who are choosing to rely on English subtitles may be missing out because the on-screen text is not accurate.

Christiane Bark, head of localisation at language learning platform Busuu said: “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.”

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Busuu’s Korean translator Heeyeon Noh gave examples of three reasons that Squid Game’s English subtitles don’t match what the characters are actually saying.

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. In Korean, a range of addresses is used 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, oppa is a word used by a woman to address an older man – 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.

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2. The characters’ foul language is watered down

A fair amount of strong language used in Squid Game was either missing, simplified, or weakened when translated to English subtitles. One reason for this is that Korean has a lot of variety when it comes to swear words, so 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, swapping the ‘f-word’ to ‘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 or sentence in English. One reason Korean to English translators drop nuances is character limits. When transcribed Korean gets translated into English it’s generally around 10 to 20 per cent 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 could be translated in about two dozen ways in Korean.

But he added that the problem of subtitles getting mangled in translation is by no means limited to Korean TV shows.

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