With the Netflix translation of Squid Game into English garnering some negative attention, Label Volunteer, Valeria Pukhova, looks at the opportunities and potential limits of cultural translations, as well as how translation can alter meaning. 

Squid Game is a South Korean TV show which was released in September 2021 and gained enormous popularity within a month, becoming the most watched series on Netflix in more than 90 countries. The main idea of the plot is that the characters must compete in a number of cruel, dehumanizing games in order to win a huge cash prize. Those who aren’t lucky enough to make it to the very end die.

The show was originally filmed in Korean, therefore people who don’t speak the language choose to either watch the dubbed version of the show or turn on subtitles. The thing is, due to a lack of understanding of the original language, they aren’t likely to notice the difference in meaning of certain phrases, which might subtly alter the perception of whole scenes or events.

According to Youngmi Mayer, who is fluent in both Korean and English, the English subtitles in Squid Game are so flawed that they change not only the context of the dialogue but even the way we view some of the characters. For instance, in one of the episodes where Han Mi-nyeo (Player 212) is trying to find a game partner, she says “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out” in the subtitles. In reality, Youngmi claims that what she actually said was “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.”

The example above is a clear illustration of how cultural translation can be imperfect to a certain extent. These two phrases, however similar they may seem at first sight, imply completely different outcomes. In fact, the subtitles completely omit the part suggesting uneven distribution of wealth in society. Because of this, Han Mi-nyeo might appear more obedient, gullible and less intelligent than she actually is.

Making the translation of films and TV shows 100% precise and literal is an incredibly challenging task. Firstly, in every language there are particular jokes, sayings and puns that can’t be translated into another language while preserving the initial meaning of the joke, especially if it involves wordplay. Secondly, the complexity of the original language plays an important role. For example, translating Russian films and TV shows into English might be tough due to the amount of various synonyms and idioms in Russian. As a result, the English translation doesn’t give off the same authentic vibe as the original.

Without a doubt, translation of pop culture is an amazing concept altogether. It allows millions of viewers around the world to enjoy their favourite shows through just a click on the “Subtitles” button. Take anime, for example. It has an enormous global fanbase primarily due to the fact that it has been translated from Japanese and, therefore, made more accessible to the non-Japanese speaking public.


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