We have heard a lot about it, especially in the last few days, since the translators of the Squid Game series were accused on the web for the English subtitles of the South Korean television series.

Since its official launch on the streaming platform, Squid Game has achieved such incredible success that not even the platform would have believed possible. Although it was released just a few weeks ago (last September 17th), it managed to ride the charts and quickly conquer first place in the Top 10 in America and Italy.

The plot of Squid Game: how it all began

For Squid Game, the Korean director and screenwriter Dong-hyuk Hwang says he was inspired by Japanese manga and anime, such as Battle Royale and Liar Game, and by the Hunger Games series of a certainly more science fiction nature. In an interview, the author told how the series was born. The objective of Squid Game is to propose a real representation of what can happen in a virtual game: an imaginary fantasy that becomes reality, and of which man is the protagonist.

The plot is decidedly attractive and explosive, full of action episodes. It tells of a mysterious invitation to take part in a competition in exchange for a financial reward. The 456 participants from different social classes find themselves, over the course of the 9 episodes, having to participate in children’s games. Whoever loses dies. Simple.

The question of the Italian dubbing for Squid Game

The series has managed to achieve international success despite dubbing and subtitling not being available for all languages. For example, you can select Italian subtitles, even if Italian dubbing isn’t there – not yet.

Probably the Italian language dubbing was not a priority for streaming the series. However, other valid reasons for this non-choice have been hypothesized. First of all, the origin: those who love K-dramas are used to watching series in the original language (Chinese, Japanese or Korean), with the help of language subtitles. Among other things, according to users and professionals in the sector, watching a film in the original language can not only be a method to practice the language and acquire greater familiarity with it, but also to get to the heart of the dialogue, capturing elements specific to the culture and which can only be conveyed through typical linguistic nuances.

Secondly, adaptation. Very often when we deal with multimedia and audiovisual translation services, the biggest challenge is to be able to capture local references and puns specific to the culture and language of reference. Without ingrained knowledge, the result could be misleading or meaningless, and the original meaning would be, so to speak, lost in translation.

Squid Game’s translators blamed for English subtitles

The accusation against subtitles began on September 30: a Twitter user, Youngmi Mayer, revealing that she has a native level of Korean, tweeted: «not to sound snobby but i’m fluent in korean and i watched squid game with english subtitles and if you don’t understand korean you didn’t really watch the same show. translation was so bad. the dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved».

According to the user, the translation and subtitling work would have sacrificed the quality and meaning of the original writing. The translators therefore did not take linguistic and cultural nuances into account, to the point of making the translation distant from the original message.

The subtitling service requires extremely high mastery of the two languages. The risk you run when producing subtitles for a series or a film is that, despite having to aim for a “natural” and linear rendering in the target language, the dialogues and sentences are overwhelmed, compromising and hiding key points of the culture and society represented in them.

The localization of texts, even “extrapolated” from films or TV series, is carried out in both directions. Although it is necessary to localize the translation based on the target language, total or complete smoothing is not permitted.

From the original Korean dialogue “I’m very smart, but I’ve never had the chance to study,” the suggested translation for the English subtitles was “I’m not a genius, but I can handle it.”

Needless to say, the translation bit off more than I could chew. Not only is the translation incorrect, but it also lacks great knowledge of the most typical aspects of Korean pop culture: a society hyper-divided into social classes where not everyone can receive the same opportunities.

English subtitles – often used as a “vehicle” for translations into other Western languages - have come under fire.

Professional subtitling takes into account the starting point and the ending point in the same way. The professional translator must therefore work from the perspective of a one-to-one translation process.

Have you ever tried using automatic translators from one first language to another, and “switching back” from the second language to the first? Often the initial message (translated into the second language) could be completely different, in terms of rendering, syntax or meaning, from the one translated in reverse into the original language.

The response of the director, and of translators and experts

Meyer joined the accusation made against English subtitles because despite the obvious cultural difference, certain cultural references cannot be completely excluded – even at the risk of not being fully understood. Some bilingual and multilingual Korean speakers watched “Squid Game” with English subtitles and noticed a gap in the translation of the dystopia aspects of the series.

On the other hand, professional translator Dennis Kreiber has drawn attention to the formatting guidelines, offensive language and cultural references imposed by the platforms themselves, and therefore the reason for “limitations” in the translation of subtitles. Screen space is itself a limitation for translation: subtitles generally cannot be longer than a tweet. Any changes or adaptations in the language would therefore mostly be driven by the priority of translators and industry players to provide an additional service to web users.

What happened therefore shows us two great things. On the one hand, the user, who watches a TV series translated, dubbed or subtitled in the language, expects to receive a product that is compliant and faithful to the original. On the other hand, the work of a translator, dubber or subtitler is extremely delicate. The professional translator constantly strives to satisfy the requests of the user and the sender, while respecting technical rules and general conditions of the sector.

LingoYou Press Office

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