Lost in ‘Squid Game’ translation – Korea Times

By Jason Lim

All the controversy around the translation of “Squid Games” got me thinking, for the first time in a long time, about how things really do get lost in translation. As a Korean American who’s bicultural, I have been interpreting and translating my share of Korean-English for the last 20 years plus, albeit not professionally.

So, I took a natural interest when I saw how the English translation of some of the Korean linguistic features in “Squid Game” triggered an international debate. Indeed, I also came across some points of language that I thought could have been conveyed better. For example, I think using “disqualified” instead of “eliminated,” for when a contestant fails and is shot is a more accurate translation. It also conveys the sense of ironic euphemism that informs the original Korean expression.

Having said that, I truly appreciate the art form that Korean-English translation can be. Translation is a recreation of the language arts, not a mechanical transcription. You have to convey a meaning that’s necessarily couched within a localized and era-sensitive context. Language is an invisible bridge that connects the speaker to the audience inside a specific and defined sociocultural proximity. Translation and interpretation attempt to recreate that bridge with a different audience that’s not within the same cultural geography. Especially with subtitles, this has to be done under the restriction of character limit and formatting constraints.

I came across a “Squid Game” meme that speaks to this more eloquently than I ever could. It’s about how Han Min-yeo’s character uses the term “oppa” in nuanced ways. Oppa, in its most basic form, is a word that a younger female sibling would use to address her older male brother. However, the use of this term has morphed in so many different ways in South Korean society that it can mean a client, customer, boy band member, boyfriend, male friend, etc., depending on who and to whom the term applies in what social context, regardless of age. In “Squid Game,” Han is almost weaponizing the term with charm, cynicism, double entendre and wit to manipulate the interpersonal and group dynamics that optimize her chances of survival. But try saying all that in a subtitle. By the way, talking about double entendres, Han Min-yeo also translates as, “One Beautiful Woman.” So, every time she is called by her name, that meaning is conveyed.

This isn’t anything new. Every language contains words like “oppa” that are impossible to translate and maintain the full complexity and personality of each term within a specific context. For some insight and comedic relief, look up the different ways that native English speakers use the word “sh*t.” Translating oppa is easier.

Therefore, the criticism about the subtitle or dubbing translation of “Squid Game” into English is missing the point. With its massive success, “Squid Game” has already proven that its appeal cuts across cultures and delivers meaning that can self-localize to cultures that are vastly different from one another. Numbers don’t lie. According to Netflix, over 111 million people watched it globally within 25 days of its release.

Maybe that’s the whole point of translation, especially of works of art. As long as the foundational dynamics and lessons underlying the storyline are conveyed, translating every single esoteric nuance of the original language isn’t necessary. Nay, it could even be a distraction to the overall flow of the story. Also, you run the risk of turning the work into something that’s so thick and rigid that it doesn’t brook any flexibility for the audience to localize it in relation to their own experiences.

Of course, the kind of translation I am talking about isn’t on par with the interpretation involved in negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. In those cases, the interpreter has to be strictly literal, even using the wrong or inappropriate words if that’s what the original speaker used. However, in most cases, translation or interpretation should be about placing the dots in positions that generally resemble the original pattern but lets the audience connect them in a way that makes the most sense to their individualized situations. If you connect the dots in premeditated ways that cannot be changed, you are robbing the audience of the chance to make the work their own, since they can’t engage with something if they can’t move within and around it. Freedom of narrative movement is what creates personalized meaning in stories.

Much of the criticism over translation of “Squid Game” is accurate but also nitpicking. In a way, I also believe that it comes from a place of pride. By that, I mean that the Korean critics are immensely proud that a homegrown TV series has struck such a nerve globally and want to make sure that the larger audience gets every subtle, clever and deep connotation behind the artistic choices of the wonderful script. But art is successful only when it becomes personally relatable, and that can only happen in between the spaces of its interpretation. Trying to impose only a single, correct way for art to be enjoyed makes it no longer art; it becomes a chore.
Jason Lim (jasonlim@msn.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.