The limits of audiovisual translation in programs like “Squid Game”

“Squid Game” is an exciting South Korean drama about desperate individuals who face off in a game of life and death for money, and it has become Netflix’s most watched show. He also received some criticism for his translation.

These critiques began when the Korean American speaker Youngmi Mayer took advantage of social media claiming that the English was poorly translated.

As a translator, I can think of two reasons for Mayer’s criticism. The first is that it does not evaluate the translation itself, but an adaptation of the translation. The second is that, from a translator’s point of view, the translation of “Squid Game” was not badly translated or sloppy at all.

Critics from viewers mainly focus on the fact that the same wording is not used in the English translation and that some cultural concepts are completely lost in the translation. Reviews like these often appear in audiovisual translation from Japanese to English, especially when it comes to cartoons. This kind of criticism is sometimes done with a lack of understanding of how translation works, and in particular audiovisual translation.

First, there is a big difference between presenting a translation via captions or via a dubbed overlay. When working with captions, the translator should convey the original meaning and intention of the script in a very compact space: the bottom of your screen. Netflix limits its two-line subtitles to 42 characters per line and Crunchyroll to around 25. Each line can only appear onscreen for a few seconds.

However, when translating a dubbed script, the translator needs to match the lips spoken words on the screen. Dubbing that isn’t in sync with the way the actor’s mouth moves could get audiences out of the show. A translator can do their best to select the words that match, but you can’t say what will work best until the voice actors are in the studio reading the script.

In “Squid Game”, for example, a character says in Korean, “What are you looking at? In Korean, this is expressed in two syllables, so the doubled script changes the line to “Go away” – similar intention, but different wording.

Also, the translator is usually not involved in the final dub script and recording. A script or dubbing adapter – which may not know the source language – will take the script provided by the translator and adapt it for dubbing purposes. Voice actors will then switch lines on the fly in the studio if they think a line will work better in English. This means that the subtitled translation and dubbing can differ significantly.

Passing the translation through several filters of people who do not speak the source language often results in the loss of subtle information and cultural contexts.

One of Mayer’s examples is with a doubled line that was translated to “I’m no genius, but I managed to do it anyway.” Mayer says the direct translation from Korean is closer to “I’m very smart, I just never had the chance to study.”

In the dub version, the genie line loses a key part of the character’s background, but it’s a more natural phrase in English. The dub is based on the translation of the subtitle, which reads “I never bothered to study, but I’m incredibly smart”. So you can see where this phone game watered down some of the original meaning, but strictly speaking it’s not a translation error.

Translation is a matter of equivalence, of searching for an equivalent meaning which may vary depending on the purpose of the translation. A technical manual translation should be clear and precise so that the target reader can follow the instructions. A marketing translation aims to sell a product to people of a different culture, and the entertainment translation should be entertaining.

In the context of entertainment translation, this means that if a joke is made in the source, then an equally appropriate joke must be made in the translation – even if they use different words. So if a character is a gruff ex-con in the original, then they should look like a gruff ex-con in the translation.

Translation is not just about using the same words or phrases, but the same feeling in the larger context of the entire show, book, movie, or manga.

In other words, just because a translation does not convey the exact wording of the source, this does not mean that it is poorly translated or inaccurate. In fact, entertainment translators can do a viewer a disservice when they directly translate a program verbatim.

Consider a line often used in anime, 告白 さ れ た (sareta kokuhaku), which is used when a character tells another character about their romantic feelings. The dictionary defines 告白 (kokuhaku) as “confession”, but in English, “confession” is defined as “a formal declaration admitting that a person is guilty of a crime”. So to say “they confessed to me” in English is a translation error. “He told me he loved me” is a more precise translation although the exact wording is not used.

No language or culture is a perfect match for one-to-one, and specific words and phrases that have deep roots in the culture can also get lost in translation. The deeper the roots, the more difficult it is to transmit in another language.

Even accents and dialects in the same language have very specific images and connotations that are invoked in the mind of a native speaker when used. The Osaka dialect creates a very different impression than the Kyoto dialect, but how do you convey them in English to someone who has no idea that there is even a difference? A translator might try to recreate the accent with that of their own culture, but it would not be the same. They might also ignore the accent altogether, but then a key part of the characterization is lost. A translator must decide on the best approach depending on the situation.

The translator’s job is to maintain the original culture as much as possible, while conveying meaning in a way that feels natural to the target audience and respecting space limitations. It’s a constant juggling number, and it varies from show to show.

The purpose of audiovisual translation is to make the source show understandable and entertaining. The fact that “Squid Game” has won fans all over the world proves that we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of good.

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