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Squid Game: why you shouldn’t be too hard on translators

Squid Game has recently become Netflix’s biggest debut ever, but the show has sparked controversy due to its English subtitles. This occurred after a Korean-speaking viewer took to Twitter and TikTok to criticise the subtitles for providing a “botched” translation, claiming: “If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show.”

Only this year, Squid Game, Lupin, and Money Heist – all non-English originals – have consistently been at the top of Netflix’s most-watched shows globally. This growing popularity of productions in languages other than English and streaming platforms investing more in them has led to an increase in the visibility of the work of translators.

When it comes to translating films and series, subtitling and dubbing are the most common forms of translation. Subtitles show the dialogue translated into text displayed at the bottom of the screen; while in dubbing, the original voices of the characters are replaced with voices in a new language.

Translation is not new to viewers, but the instant, almost frictionless access to different language versions of the same film or show definitely is. Streaming platforms allow viewers to swiftly change from watching a film with subtitles to listening to the dubbed version or the original. This creates an opportunity for viewers to compare the different versions.

Why do originals and translations differ?
Just because the translation doesn’t say exactly the same as the original, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Films and TV series are packed with cultural references, wordplay and jokes that require changes and adaptation to make sure what’s said and seen on screen makes sense across languages.

Making allowances and adapting what’s said are common practices in translation because, otherwise, the translators would need to include detailed notes to explain cultural differences.

Consider the representations of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) which are so beautifully embedded in Studio Ghibli films. While additional explanations about the significance of harmony, kinship and care represented in the bowls of ramen in Ponyo or the soft steaming red bean buns in Spirited Away could be interesting, they might get in the way of a viewer who just wants to enjoy the production.

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