How do subtitles impact a film viewer's experience? How does culture and translation affect our understanding of a TV show? 


Squid Game, Netflix’s most popular show, gained 111 million viewers in its first month. It was released in September 2021 and is an example of the increasing popularity of South Korea's media and music outside of Asia along with K-pop groups and films like Parasite and The Host.


Starring Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung, Squid Game follows a man, Seong Gi-hun, as he takes part in a knockout competition in order to win a multi million pound prize. The games start with 456 contestants, are brutal with people quickly turning on each other making the number of participants rapidly decrease. Despite the excitement surrounding the series, many Korean-speaking viewers have taken to the internet to express their dissatisfaction with the subtitles of the show, particularly the closed captions. Youngmi Mayer, one of the hosts of the Feeling Asian podcast, stated people who do not understand Korean “didn’t really watch the same show”, and another Twitter user commented that the translation “was so basic”. Joowon Suh, a Korean English professor at Columbia University, highlighted an example where in the English subtitles, Sang-Woo tells Ali to “call me Sang-Woo”. However, in Korean society, it is not custom for people to address each other by their first names. Sang-Woo is actually asking Ali to call him “Hyung” meaning “older brother”. This makes it far more heartbreaking in episode six when Ali keeps calling to Sang-woo and shouting “Hyung”. It shows he feels betrayed by someone he saw as his brother, a point lost to those reading the English translation.


Languages cannot always be translated perfectly due to a lacuna, or lexical gap. An example of this, commonly used in interior design and lifestyle magazines, is “hygge”. This Danish word, which expresses a quality of cosiness, making people feel content, does not have a direct equivalent in English. Instead, interior designers and bloggers have adopted the Danish word. Other words that have been co-opted into English include “bungalow”, a Hindi word and “cul-de-sac”, taken from the French. This lexical gap can make it difficult to translate speech to subtitles: translators must portray an idea as closely to the original as possible whilst focusing on the amount of time they have as subtitles are short and quick-moving. This may result in translators not reflecting the intended tone of the screenwriter. The tension lies between people translating words as literally as possible and conveying the idea the screenwriter initially wanted.


So next time you watch a foreign film you may wish to pay more attention to the subtitles: do some phrases sound too simple? Do the words ever feel out of place? Translation is far more difficult than swapping words from one language to another.