Squid Game

Squid Game: Latest Pop Culture Phenomenon Reveals Inconsistencies in Translation

If you have not heard of Squid Game, where have you been? Netflix’s Korean hit TV show, Squid Game, has reached 142 million fans making it the most popular series launch ever.
With all the celebration comes scrutiny. Netflix’s translation of the series from Korean to English has sparked criticism. Many native Korean speakers stated that scenes are lost in the dubbed and subtitled translations.
This article discusses how the latest pop culture phenomenon, Squid Game, highlights inconsistencies in translation. We delve into other examples of this and its impact.

What is Squid Game?

Squid Game is a South Korean survival drama television series. The series was released worldwide in September this year and it is Netflix’s most-watched series ever.
The show revolves around a competition where players put their lives at risk to take part in a series of childhood games to win a billion-dollar prize. The players are in this “game” due to severe financial debt and winning the prize money offers a way out.
But what has that got to do with translation? Viral tweets and TikTok videos started to circulate, expressing that the Korean to English translations are inconsistent. So inconsistent are the Korean-English translations that the meaning of the series remains lost to non-Korean viewers.

Examples of Inconsistency in Squid Game

New York-based comedian Youngmi Mayer is one of the first to criticise the show on social media, giving examples of the inaccuracies. The first notable difference is, instead of saying, ‘What are you looking at?’, the character [Han Mi-nyeo] says, ‘Go away’.
Mayer explains that certain characters, in this example, a ‘low-class gangster’, are misrepresented. The subtitles read ‘I’m not a genius, but I can work it out’, but in Korean, it meant, ‘I’m very smart, I just didn’t get a chance to study’. Not only is this mistranslated, but it’s also missing a massive part about Korean culture, as Mayer states in the video below.

A Korean-American translator based in Seoul, James Chung explains that the translation was satisfactory for simple lines. However, the subtle character development and culturally specific lines has noticeable issues. Chung’s observations are like those Mayer highlighted.
Chung also mentions occasions where well-known Korean phrases like “Oppa”, meaning an endearing and often flirty nickname for an older male friend used by Mi-nyeo, are overlooked entirely. Sometimes, the phrase is mistranslated as “old man” or “babe” in subtitles. On other occasions, the translations completely delete the word “ahjumma”, a potentially derogatory term for an elderly woman used by another character, Sae-beyok, when addressing Mi-nyeo.

However, Euijin Seo, a Korean language teacher, defends the translation. He states that it is challenging due to many references and terms not being translatable directly to English.

Squid Game isn’t the first show with mistranslation

Yet, Netflix is not the first only company to struggle with translation for a global market. Squid Game, the latest pop culture phenomenon has pulled our attention to the mistakes in translation. But what other translations errors are there in TV land?
These first few examples do not even make it as far as the film’s content. Here are the names of the movies and what they translate to in another language:

  • The Full Monty – Mandarin: Six Naked Pigs
  • Knocked Up – Spanish (Peru): Slightly Pregnant | Mandarin: One Night, Big Belly
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – Hebrew (Israel): It’s Raining Falafel
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Dutch: The Boy Who Drowned in Chocolate

Outside of the entertainment world, there are other examples of damage control following mishaps in translation:

  • HSBC
    HSBC bank had to start a $10 million rebranding campaign in 2009. The goal was to restore the harm caused when its motto “Assume Nothing” was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in several countries.
  • Pepsi
    In the 1960s, Pepsi’s tagline, “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation,” was met with harsh criticism in China. What is the explanation for this? In Chinese, the slogan said, “Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead”.
    Being a translator entails more than reading text and repeating what has been said in another language. Translations require years of training and hours of research on complex themes and cultural differences.

Don’t be too hard on translators

Although these mistakes have caused some uproar, we cannot be too harsh on the translators. Experts state that differences in translation are inevitable. This is because of many untranslatable elements, such as cultural references, which Euijin Seo suggests is the case with Squid Game.

The translations aren’t incorrect per se, but they don’t state precisely what the original says. Movies and TV shows are full of cultural references, wordplay, and jokes. Forcing alterations and adaptations ensures that what is said and seen on screen makes sense in different languages.
Making compromises and alterations is typical practice in translation. Otherwise, the translators would have to provide lengthy notes to explain cultural variations.
The Squid Game controversy has been crucial in bringing translation issues to the forefront. There is a growing demand for high-quality content that incorporates a broader range of genres, excellent storytelling, and distinctive imagery. Of course, there are good and bad translations. But the key benefit is the chance to discuss the influencing factors.

It is encouraging to see viewers invested in what they watch. Foreign films and TV shows can help people understand and empathise with unfamiliar cultures. However, this could result in various viewing experiences, reflecting the reality of watching any culturally sensitive material, even in our own language.
After all, language is open to interpretation, right?

At McFelder Translations, we can translate your material to a high standard through our Audiovisual service. Request our audiovisual brochure here.

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