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Squid Game HoYeon Jung
HoYeon Jung – via Netflix

The ‘botched’ Squid Game subtitle saga explained

A viral TikTok claims that the subtitles for the Korean drama are misleading, but it’s not quite that simple

If you’ve spoken to anyone with a Netflix subscription (or access to one) recently you’ve probably heard all about Squid Game, the hellish Korean horrorshow in which contestants take part in playground games for vast sums of money. There’s a catch, though: if you lose you get killed.

The Korean-language drama, which takes inspiration from previous ‘death competition’ classics such as Hunger Games and Battle Royale, landed on Netflix last month, and has quickly become one of the streaming platform’s most-watched series thanks to its arresting visuals, relentless pace, and clever dialogue. However, a viral TikTok has criticised Netflix’s subtitles, claiming that a lot of the script’s subtlety, wit, and overall meaning is lost in translation. 

TikTok user and Korean speaker youngmimayer has gone viral for her criticism of the subtitles. In a Twitter thread she said: “If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved. I want to do a scene breakdown on TikTok to show you what they could’ve translated to.”

“I’m fluent in Korean and I had the English subtitles on and I noticed that you’re missing so much,” she says in a TikTok, before turning her attention to one of the contestants, Han Mi-nyeo, (whose name translates to beautiful girl). “Her dialogue constantly gets botched. Every little thing she says is fucked up. I think it’s because she plays a ‘low class’ character and she’s gangster and cusses a lot.”

Youngmimayer claims that even seemingly insignificant snippets of Mi-nyeo’s dialogue are altered. For example, she says to one of the gameshow guards: “What are you looking at?” which is inaccurately translated to: “Go away”. 

However, more significant parts of the script that add nuance to her character are also missed. In one scene Mi-nyeo is trying to convince another contestant to continue the games with her. The subtitles read: “I’m not a genius but I can still work it out”. However, what she actually says is “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study,” according to youngmimayer.

“That is a huge trope in Korean media, the poor person that’s smart and clever, that’s a huge part of her character, but almost everything she says is being botched,” she adds.

@youngmimayer

##squidgame translations are sooo wrong here’s a little example

♬ original sound - youngmi

But the plot thickens. Since youngmimayer’s viral video, another TikTok user mermaidkeels pointed out that the subtitles differ depending on whether you select the ‘English’ or ‘English CC’ version. It turns out that youngmimayer was watching Squid Game with ‘English CC’ subtitles which were written to match the English audio dubbed version of the show.

The English audio version of Squid Game is for people who can’t, or prefer not to, read subtitles. However, when translating from Korean to English for this version, the script was slightly altered to better match the lip movements of characters. The English CC subtitles match this slightly altered script as they are designed for people watching this version who are hard of hearing. 

With me so far? Okay, so if you want a more accurate Korean to English translation, the general consensus is to go with the ‘English’ subtitling, even though viewers have pointed out that these too aren’t without fault. “I watched it with regular English captions and it’s pretty much the same thing unfortunately,” wrote one Twitter user, with another suggesting that streaming platform Viki – an extensive library of Asian film and TV – provides richer subtitling with more cultural context.