I actually only started watching Squid Game because of Tiktok. Specifically, a Tiktok made by Youngmi Mayar, a comedian both fluent in Korean and host of the podcast “Feeling Asian.” Of course, being ranked number one on Netflix for the past couple of weeks meant that I definitely had heard of it prior to this, but I’ve never been one for thriller-like TV shows, and so I hadn’t gotten around to watching it. However, I found the concepts presented in Mayar’s video to be an interesting motivator to see for myself what all the hype was about. Unfortunately, her rant about the show isn’t exactly positive, largely involving the notoriously incorrect English dubs (and sometimes) English subs.
I’ve always enjoyed watching movies and TV shows in other languages, whether it be artsy foreign film or anime, so I’ve become used to both making fun of the oftentimes horribly done English dubs or reading the subtitles. However, reading more into things, it sounds like even the English subtitles miss a large part of the dialogue and accompanying characterization and the overall message “Squid Game” is trying to get at.
According to Victoria Namkung, in her Tiktok rant, Mayar speaks about how the brash character of Han Minyeo is “botched” and “sterilized,” as her dialogue is subtly changed from its original form. However, even these small changes apparently make all the difference, as they take away from the complexity of her character, transforming a loud but capable character into simplistic yelling and comedic relief. For example, Minyeo claims, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it to work out” in the English captioning while the Korean meaning is actually “I am very smart, I just never got the chance to study.”
Mayar makes the point that although these sound similar, they actually have fairly different meanings. While the English captioning simplifies Minyeo down to claiming she can just get the job done, the original meaning is much more complex, bringing to light the Korean trope of someone who is extremely intelligent and yet cannot move up in the world due to a lack of formalized education. This points fingers at the system itself, shaming society for giving advantage to those who can afford such luxuries.
Apparently, the iconic “Red Light, Green Light” game shown in the first episode isn’t even its real name. Mayar talks about how the episode’s title is “The day that the mugunghwa flower blossomed” in reference to the game’s Korean name being “The mugunhgwa flower has blossomed,” as well as that being Korea’s national flower. However, the English Sub only includes the commonly known US name for it, “Red Light, Green Light.” This not only completely ignores its metaphorical meaning but also loses a level of Korean culture that should remain prevalent in the show.
One point to make for the English Subtitles is that Mayar, like many others fluent in Korean, wasn’t aware they were watching the closed captioning version of the show instead of the official subtitles. However, even after switching it over, she still claims to be disappointed in the blatant changes made between meanings. “I still think there are so many big things missing from the narrative.”
She also goes into understanding that although there is a clear cultural difference and it’s difficult to explain things in full, it does a disservice to the writers to not fully communicate what they’ve spent so much of their time creating. Other online creators (as well as Mayar) did note that translation work is extremely challenging as well as unfunded. There are a lot of rules and restraints that aren’t normally considered to those outside the field, such as time and space constraints on screen as well as what the viewer would most likely understand.
Americans have been known for shunning the reading of subtitles, something that has remained relevant far before the popularity of this show. Director of “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho, joked about the same thing during his Golden Globe speech. “The world does not revolve around English,” Greta Jung, who has done multiple translations for some Chinese and Korean works on Netflix, states. It is a lack of familiarity and exposure to other languages and cultures that make subtitles and translations such a struggle, especially in the US.
As someone who is not at all fluent in Korean, I cannot claim to understand the technical differences, but I did find it surprising that the translations would be so off. In addition to the English captioning having problems, apparently, the English Dub is even worse.
This is to the point where I’ve seen videos claiming if you watch “Squid Game” Dubbed, it’s a laughably different show. From what I’ve seen so far, ranked from worst to best, it goes English sub, English closed captioning, English subtitles, and then in its original language of Korean. Unfortunately, many English speakers, including myself, don’t have the means to watch the last one, but we can all do our best to become and accept familiarity with other cultures beyond our own.