“Squid Game” is a thrilling South Korean drama about desperate individuals who compete in a life-or-death game for cash, and it has become Netflix’s most-watched show ever. It has also received a few criticisms for its translation.
These criticisms began when American Korean speaker Youngmi Mayer took to social media claiming the English was mistranslated.
As a translator, I can think of two reasons for Mayer’s critique. The first is that she is not assessing the translation itself, but an adaptation of the translation. The second is that, from a translator’s perspective, the “Squid Game” translation was not mistranslated or botched at all.
Viewer criticisms mostly focus on how the same wording is not used in the English translation, and that certain cultural concepts are lost altogether in translation. Criticisms like these often come up in Japanese-to-English audio-visual translation, too — especially with regard to anime. These kinds of critiques are sometimes made with a lack of understanding of how translation, and audio-visual translation in particular, works.
First, there is a big difference between presenting a translation via subtitles or via a dubbed overlay. When working with subtitles, the translator must convey the original meaning and intent of the script in a very compact space — the bottom of your screen. Netflix limits its subtitles to two lines at 42 characters per line and Crunchyroll at about 25. Each line can only appear on screen for a few seconds.
When translating for a dubbed script, however, the translator must match the words being said to the lip flaps on screen. A dub that’s out of sync with the way the actor’s mouth is moving could take the audience out of the show. A translator can try their hardest to select words that will match, but you can’t tell what will work best until the voice actors are in the studio reading the script.
In “Squid Game,” for example, one character says in Korean, “What are you looking at?” In Korean, this is expressed in two syllables, so the dubbed script changes the line to “Go away” — similar intent, but different wording.
Additionally, the translator is usually not involved with the final dub script and recording. A screenplay or dub adaptor — who may not know the source language — will take the script provided by the translator and adapt it for dubbing purposes. Voice actors will then change lines on the fly in the studio if they feel a line will work better in English. This means the subtitled translation and the dub can differ greatly.
Having the translation go through multiple filters of people who don’t speak the source language often results in subtle information and cultural contexts being lost.
One of Mayer’s examples is with a dubbed line that was translated to “I’m not a genius, but I still got it to work out.” Mayer says the direct translation of the Korean is closer to “I’m very smart, I just never got the chance to study.”
In the dub version, the genius line loses a key part of the character’s background, but it’s a more natural phrase in English. The dub is based on the subtitle translation, which goes “I never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart.” So you can see where this game of telephone has watered down some of the original meaning, but strictly speaking it isn’t a mistranslation.
Translation is all about equivalence, finding an equivalent meaning that can vary depending on the goal of the translation. A technical manual translation needs to be clear and accurate so the target reader can follow the instructions. A marketing translation aims to sell a product to people of a different culture, and entertainment translation should be, well, entertaining.
In the context of entertainment translation this means that if a joke is made in the source, then an equally appropriate joke must be made in the translation — even if they use different words. So if a character is a gruff ex-convict in the original, then they should sound like a gruff ex-con in the translation.
Translation isn’t just about using the same words or phrases, but the same feeling within the greater context of the whole show, book, film or manga.
In other words, just because a translation doesn’t convey the exact wording of the source, it doesn’t mean it’s mistranslated or inaccurate. In fact, entertainment translators can do a disservice to the viewer when they directly translate a show word-for-word.
Let’s take a line often used in anime, 告白された (kokuhaku sareta), which is used when one character tells another character about their romantic feelings. The dictionary defines 告白 (kokuhaku) as “confession,” but in English “confession” is defined as “a formal statement admitting that one is guilty of a crime.” So, saying “they confessed to me” in English is a mistranslation. You might think “He confessed his love for me” is a good middle ground, but this phrasing is mostly used in written text. You might read it in literature, but an anime high schooler probably wouldn’t say it. “He told me he loved me” is a more accurate translation for the context even if the exact wording isn’t used.
No language or culture perfectly matches one-for-one, and specific words and turns of phrase that have deep roots in the culture may also get lost in translation. The deeper the roots, the harder it is to convey in another language.
Even accents and dialects in the same language have very specific imagery and connotations that are summoned to a native speaker’s mind when used. The Osaka dialect creates a very different impression compared to the Kyoto dialect, but how do you convey these in English to someone who has no idea that a difference even exists? A translator could try and re-create the accent with one from their own culture, but it wouldn’t be the same. They could also ignore the accent altogether, but then a key part of the characterization is lost. A translator must decide the best approach depending on the situation.
The translator’s job is to maintain the original culture where possible, while also conveying the meaning in a way that sounds natural to the target audience, and meeting space limitations. It’s a constant juggling act, and it varies from show to show.
The goal of audio-visual translation is to make the source show understandable and entertaining. The fact that “Squid Game” has won fans around the world proves we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
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