Whether you’ve binged all of Squid Game or stopped after the first episode, you’re not alone. The Korean survival drama became a global sensation overnight.
In its first month, over 100 million people watched at least two minutes of the series. But unless you’re fluent in Korean, you might have missed a lot more than you think.
Flubbed Dubs And Confusing Captions
Comedian and co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast Youngmi Mayer recently shared her qualms with Squid Game’s translation on social media.
Mayer goes on to provide several examples of botched translations. She isn’t nitpicking semantics, either. The subpar dubs lose metaphors, double meanings, and general context.
Players’ Misleading Dialogue
Mayer starts with Player 212, aka Han Mi-nyeo. “Every little thing she says gets f—ed up,” Mayer says in a follow-up TikTok video. “I think it’s because she plays a ‘low class’ character, so she cusses a lot. And [the translation] gets very sterilized.”
In one example, Mi-nyeo says, “what are you looking at?” The translation reads, “go away.” “Which might seem arbitrary,” Mayer says, “but everything she said isn’t really aligning. You’re missing a lot of this character and what she stands for.”
A major Korean trope is also lost in Mi-nyeo’s translations. In one scene, Mi-nyeo’s dubbed dialogue says, “oh, I’m not a genius, but I can work it out.”
“What she actually said is, ‘I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.’ That is a huge trope in Korean media,” Mayer explains.
“The poor person that’s smart and clever but isn’t wealthy—that’s a huge part of her character. The writers—all they want you to know about her is that. It’s the entire character’s purpose of being in the f—ing show.”
Greta Jung, a voice actor who has dubbed roles in several Korean and Chinese shows, shared the same concerns with NBC News.
“They should have made a parenthesis in the subtitles when the North Korean character speaks,” Jung told NBC. “[Kang Sae-byeok] has a North Korean accent and hides it around South Korean people. That’s important. That’s significant.”
Jung said that adding accent-specific context could open non-Korean speakers’ minds to the subtle variations in the language. And it isn’t just the dialogue and dialect, either.
Korean Morality Through An American Lens
The morals and ideologies presented by the writers are also American-washed. As Mayer and several other social media users explain, they’re often incorrect.
For example, “Gganbu” is the title of episode six. But the titular word’s meaning is lost entirely. In the same TikTok video, Mayer plays a brief clip from episode six where Gi-hun and The Old Man talk.
“Okay, we are gganbu,” The Old Man says to Gi-hun. “It’s a good friend—one who you trust a lot. You share things with them, you see? Your marbles. Everything.”
Mayer cuts in, “what that translates to is, ‘there’s no ownership between me and you.’ Not ‘we share everything.’ That’s like the entire point of this f—ing episode. That is such a difference in ideology that the writer is trying to get across to you.”
In another example, a Twitter user shares a screencap of a phone call between a character and his mother. The translation reads, “I’m just worried that you might get me, you know, something that’s really way too expensive.”
“This one got me early on in my watch cuz [sp] it’s his mother going, ‘you don’t need to buy me anything, just take care of yourself.’ But they changed it to…this,” Andrew Minghee Kim tweeted.
Context is crucial in these moments. Some social media users believe it’s on purpose. “This doesn’t look like ‘not enough translators.’ More like ‘don’t let the world know Korea is much more left than Western media says,’” one Twitter user replied to Kim.
Even The Titles Are Incorrect
Finally, Mayer calls out the titles themselves. In a second TikTok video, Mayer focuses on the first episode. In English, the title is “Red Light, Green Light.” In Korean, it’s “The Mugunghwa Flower Has Blossomed.”
“Red Light, Green Light” provides American context. We recognize the game from gym class, and we can infer what will happen in the episode. But Mayers explains that the original title is full of metaphors specific to Korea.
“The mugunghwa flower is the national flower of Korea,” Mayer says. “Metaphor alert! It’s the first episode. I personally think they could have called it that in English, and I think people would have understood it by watching it. They would have googled that…right?”
A Bigger Problem Than Squid Game
Mayer added to her original tweet that “the reason this happens is because translation work is not respected and also the sheer volume of content. Translators are underpaid and overworked. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the producers who don’t appreciate this art.”
“How stupid is it that in this country, the media—run by and large by white people—get to criticize art?” Mayer continues. “They don’t even know what we are saying. This is language, but same goes for food, art, music, etc.”
Translator Denise Kripper blames the speed at which the audiovisual industry moves. “Time is money on TV, so turnaround for translations can be fast,” she told NBC.
But, she argues, it’s important to take the time to slow down and do things accurately. “A big part of the challenge in preserving cultural references in translation comes from a generalized lack of familiarity and exposure of English speakers, Americans in particular, to other cultures.”
“The more subtitled films they watch, the more translated books they read, the better, in terms of being able to appreciate and learn more about a different culture, which is the whole point of a translation,” Kripper says.
Mayer’s videos and tweets have since gone viral. Hopefully, the increased attention will give translators the green light to slow down and produce thoughtful, accurate translations. That way, we’re all on the same page and in the same game.