Friday, October 8, 2021

Squid Game Subtitles Bring Universal Localisation Problem To Mainstream Attention

Squid Game is the hottest thing on Netflix right now, apparently. So it sent the internet into quite a tizzy when polyglots discovered that its subtitles were not exactly faithful, to put it mildly. Or as I would call it, another case of overlocalisation, a problem that’s way too common in the world of translating entertainment media.

Which is nice. Fantastic even, because this is the best thing to happen to video games that suffer the same fate. Although at the same time it is mildly depressing that it takes a Netflix sensation facing the same issue before the problem that is seemingly universal in the realm of entertainment translation gets the kind of attention it deserves.

If you need a quick timeline of events, Netflix put up Squid Game on 17 September. Since then, a number of people have been able to binge the whole series, and the multilinguals among them have found that the subtitles have, at best, killed any nuance in their original language, and at worst, are rough paraphrases rather than translations.

Then there’s the difference even between subtitles and closed captions, which is the more complete version that notes even sound effects. That’s more for people with hearing difficulties rather than those that don’t understand the language. But it gets worse as the closed captions version turns out be be even poorer than the standard subs, and look to be subtitles for the dub instead, which is equally devoid of context and suffering from the usual terminal case of overlocalisation.

The problem with Squid Game and its subtitles, closed captions and dubs is not new. In fact, it is absolutely ancient, being around in this world for longer than I have, being especially prevalent in anime, drama and games from Japan. But it has probably largely been ignored because Japanese media has never had the contagiousness of South Korean entertainment media. Or maybe they did, but because that happened before the age of the internet, any attention that was brought to it dissipated quickly, and people have gotten tired of pointing it out by the time the internet came along.

Going back to Squid Game, the example that’s being thrown around online now is the “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work[ed] out” line from the English closed captions, or as the line is supposedly said in Korean, the “I’m very smart, but I never had the chance to study” line. The important nuance here that’s lost is the trope of intelligent people who had no wealth, and presumably therefore had no access to advanced formal education, which is said to be common in South Korean entertainment.

If you were a cynic like me, and were to believe that the closed captions is simply being the subtitle for the English dub as claimed, then you can sort of see why it was done that way. It’s possible, likely even, that the vast majority of the show’s audience who would use the dub over the sub are from the Anglosphere. And stereotype dictates that, for that crowd, being too poor to access education is not a relatable reality of life, hence the change in the line.

A similar logic can be applied to most warping of dialogue due to overlocalisation – to make a line more relatable to the population that speaks the translated language, but at the expense of context and nuance from the original. This is especially when it comes to proverbs. Translations will often opt to use the translated equivalent instead of translating the original proverb and also providing the meaning in a footnote, in addition to the equivalent in the translated language. An example that I was recently exposed to is the Japanese proverb that loosely translates to “it’s darkest at the base of a lighthouse”, which means it’s easy to miss things that are close by, i.e. not noticing something that’s right under one’s nose.

[Ed. Note: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had a similar scenario, with a line spoken by the film’s antagonist in Mandarin. The line directly translates to “I’ve eaten more salt than you have eaten rice”, but is subbed as “I’ve lived more lifetimes than you have”.]

Or, more likely, it’s the standard of having a very limited character count for the subtitles. As another Twitter user who claims to have done subbing work for Netflix explains, this is dictated by the amount of time the subtitles show up. So a line that is up for shorter amounts of time must be shorter in character count as well. There’s even an FAQ entry on this provided by Netflix. There’s probably also a similar rule when it comes to dubbing, in terms of the dubbed lines matching the original in length, pauses, mouth movement and so on.

On one hand, this can be argued as an accessibility issue, so it’s understandable as to why this is done, especially for cinema. But on the other, there are instances where this just doesn’t apply. Like at home where you have the ability to pause and rewind. And since the ordinary English subtitles and the closed captions are two different sets, there can be similarly another separate set of subs – one that’s more accurate, and flooded with footnotes for those who want them.

The Daily Beast puts forth the argument that there’s no way to add footnotes to episodes to give viewers insight into the original language’s cultural nuances. But if you’ve been exposed to the grey fansubbing scene early in the turn of the new millennium, you’ll know that this is not true.

There are plenty of social commentary anime floating around that requires a deep understanding of Japanese pop culture for any of the jokes to land. But that didn’t stop dedicated fansubbers from squeezing footnotes into any available space, even if only for a couple of frames. This meant that casual fans can just ignore them and continue watching, while those who who are curious enough will take the trouble to pause or rewind to the specific frame to read them.


Some would brush off the discrepancies by telling people to either get over it or, if it bothered people enough, go learn the original language. Such is the argument of T.K., the guy behind the blog Ask a Korean, when speaking to The Daily Beast. This is a silly argument as best, since just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the culture. And, as demonstrated by the fansubbers early in this millennium, if you can fit in footnotes about the language, you can do the same for the nuance and pop culture.

And asking viewers to get over it is like asking them to turn off their brains while watching. The audacity of those who want to be entertained and maybe learn a thing or two from watching a TV show, rather than just kill time and have the TV watch them instead, right?

Also, misunderstandings happen often enough when people have a conversation in the same language. So imagine the kind of deviation in meaning that can happen when translations in subbing and dubbing don’t put accuracy at the top of the list of priorities. And we all know the importance of context and nuance, right? Right? Anyway…

If you’re an optimistic person, you’d probably make the argument that this is a learning experience for Netflix. But the Crunchyrolls and Square Enix’s of the world will tell you that nothing will change. This is especially true for the latter, as the many games it makes frequently suffer from overlocalisation. Gaming is also a tougher nut to crack because, while adding footnotes is as easy as a popup or an extra lore page, it will kill the flow of gameplay. The latter option especially, as it causes players to either pause the game to go look it up, or continue playing and inevitably forget about it.


That being said, if Netflix can really learn from the fansubbing communities of old and actually improve its dubbing and subbing efforts to make them more accurate, then there’s hope for the video game world after all. But it will take enough people making this kind of noise on the internet for a start, and for them to not lose steam after decades of silence. And for the sake of everyone’s mental wellbeing and well as my own conscience, it’s not something I can recommend.

And on that bombshell…

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