The Trouble of Translation: Squid Game

This article contains spoilers for Netflix's Squid Game.

Art by Lauren Lancaster.

In the final scene of Squid Game, the protagonist Gi-hun confronts the Front Man, the organiser of a competition where 456 selected contestants, all burdened with insurmountable financial debt, play a series of Korean children’s games with deadly consequences in the hopes of winning a life-changing cash prize. Gi-hun, unable to forget his traumatic path to victory, says to the Front Man: “it wasn’t a dream.” Except, Gi-hun doesn’t actually say this at all.

Squid Game, a surprise global hit, is possibly the most successful Korean series of all time, and is on track to the be the most popular original Netflix show ever. To the millions of Squid Game viewers around the world, the series’ accessibility is dependent on the subtitle and dub tracks offered by Netflix. While I cannot speak for other subtitle tracks, the English CC subtitles, which are the default setting for most Netflix users otherwise primarily consuming English-language content, appeared to differ repeatedly from the Korean dialogue. One such example: the addition of Gi-hun’s “it wasn’t a dream,” although he says nothing of the sort in Korean.

The difficulty with assessing translational ‘accuracy’ lies in the fact that translation is fundamentally an act of interpretation; the fact that there are 54 notable modern English translations of Beowulf alone indicates that objective accuracy is elusive, or even meaningless. While subtitles are often considered more akin to objective transcriptions rather than literary works, scripts, just like novels, must be interpreted. Such choices are often clearly seen in the translation of culturally specific terms, like the Korean word hyung, used by men to refer to an older brother, or close older male friend. Hyung connotes social intimacy, and so, when Sang-Woo, an embezzling investment manager, invites Ali, a Pakistani immigrant and fellow contestant, to call him hyung, the subtitles translate this as Sang-Woo telling Ali to call him by his first name instead of ‘sir’. While the subtitles forgo a literal interpretation of hyung, they preserve the social significance of the invitation, which implies a more casual friendship.

While it’s clear that culturally specific terms must be somewhat localised to the target language, the Squid Game subtitles appear to do this rather inconsistently. The word oppa, although now corrupted in social consciousness by koreaboos and K-drama parodies, is used by women in three main contexts: referring to an older brother, referring to a close older male friend, or referring to a romantic older male partner. When Mi-nyeo, a cunning woman with an unknown past, tries to convince Gi-hun to be her partner for the fourth game, she calls him oppa, translated as ‘babe’ in the English CC subtitles. While I would say this is a justified choice that reflects the intimate and potentially sexual tone that Mi-nyeo is invoking, when she similarly tries to convince Deok-su to recruit her for his team in a game two episodes prior, her use of oppa is translated as ‘old man.’ Notwithstanding the fact that the latter is also not an entirely correct translation of the word, the inconsistency of the translation in similar contexts raises questions around the soundness of the subtitles.

I should acknowledge here that many of the awkward translations in the Squid Game subtitles do not functionally impede the viewer experience. Where the subtitles read as the Front Man saying, “you should celebrate” to Gi-hun following his victory, rather than ‘congratulations on your victory,’ or an entire range of quite abrasive cuss words are mellowed by their frequent translation to “freaking” or “goddamn,” the point can still be made out by the viewer. Even where the subtitles are noticeably off, viewers can still rely on the visceral audio-visual aspects of the series, which may lessen the importance of subtitle ‘inaccuracies.’

But, for a show that writer-director Hwang Dong-Hyuk spent over ten years creating the dialogue for, where should the line be drawn for the subtitle quality that is owed to viewers? A starting point may be where the translation alters or omits key parts of characters. For example, Ali refers to Sang-Woo as sajangnim, a term of respect roughly translated as ‘sir’ or ‘boss,’ and calls Il-nam, an elderly player with a brain tumour, ‘old sajangnim.’ The subtitles however, translate both terms of address as ‘sir,’ failing to convey Ali’s slightly awkward Korean and consequently undermining a later scene where Ali fails to understand Sang-Woo’s explanation of the rules of the marble game, foreshadowing Sang-Woo’s ultimate deception that leads to Ali’s death.

A more heavy-handed example arises in the final confrontation between Gi-hun and Il-nam, when Il-nam reveals himself as the original mastermind of the game, who chose to compete in his dying days to ‘feel something.’ When Gi-hun asks Il-nam if he got what he wanted, the subtitles for Il-nam’s response begin with “hell yeah,” even though in Korean, Il-nam does not give any such affirmation before the rest of his reply. The insertion appeared, in my view, awkward and uncharacteristically flippant, altering the composed conversational tone Il-nam had maintained. The issue however, is that my gripe with the subtitles is dependent on my personal understanding of the character; what is to say that the translator didn’t include hell yeah to reflect what they perceived as a more casual conversation? Another explanation perhaps lies in the fact that these are the English CC subtitles, as opposed to the English subtitles which appear to differ. If the CC subtitles are intended also for those who may be hard of hearing, are such additions intended to convey tone that cannot be ascertained solely from written language?

But, even if the additions were intended to convey tone, this isn’t something that is standard practice in English CC subtitles for English-language content. And despite the difficulties of assessing the accuracy of Squid Game’s subtitles, it is clear some of the English CC translation choices are unnecessarily awkward, and had clearly available alternatives. When Mi-nyeo attempts to solicit Sang-Woo as a teammate, she says to him in Korean ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me to…you’d be surprised at what I can do’. The English CC track however, translates this as “I’ll be your dream girl all night long…I’ll do anything you tell me. I’m not a regular girl”. The latter removes the more subtle sexual undertones of the invitation, couched in the language of being an obedient teammate, and ultimately, put simply, sounds tacky. A grown woman calling herself a ‘dream girl’, seems an unnecessary choice when no similar phrase is originally used, and stunts the flow of the dialogue.

As mentioned, there is no clear answer as to how one can identify, let alone remedy, subpar translation. Translation will always be an approximation, vulnerable to awkward and out-of-context choices; the show could even be seen as self-aware when an American VIP comments, “Squid game — what an odd name.” But, in increasingly viewing foreign-language content, we, as consumers, must also recognise subtitles as necessary endeavours to place works in new, and sometimes unyielding, contexts. If Bong Joon-Ho implores us to overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” we must also think of who builds those fences, and why.

Ultimately, foreign-language content is becoming more accessible and more popular through the globalisation of streaming platforms; shows like Money Heist, Kingdom, Call Your Agent!, just to name a few, rank across Netflix leader boards. In 2021, Netflix is investing US$1 billion in Asian original content, and is now turning to African original content following the release of its first original South African series Queen Sono. Yet, Netflix regularly outsources and underpays for translation work, with Glassdoor showing wages as low as US$6/hr, and online testimonies claiming that Netflix offered pay of 0.08€ per word translated. As David Bellos observes, literary translators into English often earn less than a living wage, which arguably shapes a lack of respect for, as well as the quality of, translation work. If Squid Game is any indication of how valuable non-English-language content will be for Netflix going forward, investment in original content must be accompanied by a wider discussion of what subtitling is, and how to support those who undertake it.