Squid Game: Have Korean nuances of Netflix's Squid Game been lost in translation with English subtitles?

The hit streaming series, Squid Game, has been crowned Netflix’s most successful series to date and soared to the number one most watched spot in countries across the globe – but are English viewers missing Korean nuances in the show’s translation?

Squid Game: Have Korean nuances of Netflix's Squid Game been lost in translation with English subtitles? (Image courtesy of Netflix)
Squid Game: Have Korean nuances of Netflix's Squid Game been lost in translation with English subtitles? (Image courtesy of Netflix)

A Korean TV drama thriller likened to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, Squid Game sees Korean citizens struggling to escape from a cycle of poverty compete in a dystopian, bloody battle to the death to win 45.6 billion won (approximately £28 million) by defeating fellow competitors.

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Squid Game’s success has even reportedly spawned a rise in Korean language learners, with language-learning platform Duolingo seeing a 40 per cent increase in new US learners studying Korean on the previous year.

Squid Game's main character Seong Gi-hun is among 456 Koreans who take part in the survival contest for the chance to win 45.6 billion won. (Image credit: Noh Juhan/Netflix)
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It is reported that this growth rose even more sharply in the UK in the two weeks after Squid Game’s release on Netflix, with a 76 per cent rise of UK citizens registering to learn Korean on Duolingo.

But the streaming giant’s English translations of the series’ Korean script has also come under scrutiny from native speakers of the language – with a debate over the accuracy of Netflix’s English subtitles for Squid Game now coming to a head.

While mistranslations in subtitles of international TV shows and films are not uncommon, many Korean-speaking viewers have argued that potential mistranslations of Korean speech in the show mean that nuances in Squid Game’s script and characterisation are lost in translation.

Language experts at language-learning site, Busuu, identified that swear words on the show such as f***, frequently uttered by characters in tense drama, are often changed to softer alternatives – with complex Korean phrasing also simplified to fit limited subtitle lengths and time-spans.

Such changes appear right at the start of Squid Game, with the show’s first episode seeing a hellish playground game with a murderous twist played by desperate contestants translated as the American version called ‘Red Light, Green Light’ rather than the Korean version, translating to ‘the Mugunghwa (hibiscus) flower has bloomed’.

Christiane Bark, Head of Localisation at Busuu said: “Like with all translations, meanings sometimes have to be adapted and some of the details get lost in translation because languages can’t be translated directly meaning translators have to find the closest meaning in their language.

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“In some cases, however, the translated subtitles are missing vital information or are gross mistranslations, often due to the lack of context given to the translator.

“Some subtitles have to simplify what is being said as there is limited space and time to display text for viewers to read.”

The particular nuances of Korean language, which see certain form of address such as hyung and oppa used to describe a range of relationships in relation to hierarchy, closeness and gender, are swapped out for character names in Squid Game’s English subtitles.

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As a result, the intimate bonds formed between players and shown in tender moments before survivors watch new friends die in brutal, sudden ways, can pass viewers by.

And while swear words have likely been changed in some instances to avoid hefty repetition of expletives, according to Busuu’s Korean translator and localisation expert, the personalities of characters such as sweary Han Mi-nyeo, played by Korean actress Kim Joo-ryoung, are arguably diluted for English viewers when the f-word is replaced with ‘damn’ in subtitles.

Dr Youngmi Kim, senior lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Edinburgh, says that while Netflix “could pay a lot more attention to translation” and the specific cultural nuances in Squid Game and Korean TV shows and films generally, Squid Game’s unique appeal and message is by no means diminished by slips in translation.

"The brutal competitiveness in the show is actually reflecting real life everywhere – not only in Korea, but in the UK, US and anywhere in the world,” she says.

"The characters in Squid Game are very varied – from the socially elite member of society with a degree from a top university who deals with large amounts of money at his financial company, to a foreign labourer who did not get paid and has been unfairly treated, to North Korean defectors.

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"This variety of characters, actually reflecting every different part of society, is what makes the show so popular, I think.”

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