Lost In Translation: “Squid Game” and Its Latest Controversy

The Korean Netflix show “Squid Game” has been critiqued for mistranslation in the English subtitles. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The Korean Netflix show “Squid Game” has been critiqued for mistranslation in the English subtitles. (Courtesy of Facebook)


Over the last few years, Korean media has exploded in popularity in the U.S. A year ago, “Parasite,” a Korean movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, swept the competition at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director and four additional awards. K-pop group BTS has dominated the charts for the past few years and broken the record for most views on a YouTube video in 24 hours multiple times. In September, the Netflix original series, “Squid Game” was released and became the service’s most-watched series to date. As of this week, the series has over 111 million views, the majority of them American. There is no doubt that Korean media has become a sensation in the United States.

The plot of “Squid Game” is fairly easy to understand. 456 desperate, indebted Koreans take up an opportunity to win a cash prize of 46 billion Won. The contestants play an array of children’s games from “Red Light, Green Light” to the titular “Squid Game,” a popular playground game in Korea. If they lose, they are killed. Over time, as players are eliminated, the main characters start to fall apart as they try their hardest to stay alive and win their money. 

However, there has been some controversy around the English subtitles in “Squid Game.” TikTok user Youngmi Mayer, who is fluent in Korean and English, pointed out that many of the subtitles were not properly translated. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she said it created a hole in the storyline, preventing the audience from understanding the show to its full extent. 

Of course, this can happen with any television show or movie that isn’t in English. Mistranslations in foreign media are not uncommon. Translators often have limited subtitle lengths that they must take into account when translating the dialogue into other languages. Other times, the phrases simply don’t exist. Any other K-drama is not going to be phrased the same way as it would in Korean with English subtitles. So the question is: does that change how we view the show? 

One of the main points in the subtitle argument is that the characters’ personalities are not entirely accurate. For example, Han Mi-nyeo, a poor single mother, is subtitled saying, “I’m not a genius, but I can figure it out.” Her original line translates more closely to “I’m very smart, just never got the chance to study.” This discrepancy leads to an entirely different meaning. 

Despite these disparities, the overall message of “Squid Game” is clear to English- speaking audiences. “Squid Game” is a critique of capitalism and how the promise of money causes people to act irrationally. Gi-hun bets on horses. Sangwoo becomes involved in fraud. Saebyeok pickpockets. All of the main characters, even before they become involved in the game, put their lives on the line in order to expand their fortune. Even without subtitles, it is easy to understand as the visuals are enough to help viewers comprehend the message behind the show. Each character’s facial expressions change when the piggy bank above them fills with cash and the screen next to it displays how much money they will receive at the end of the game. 

It is not just Korean TV that has gained popularity in the U.S. Many of the most-watched shows in the U.S. were originally in a foreign language, so it is inevitable that mistranslation scandals will continue to arise; however, this does not mean that we should avoid foreign media. 

With non-English programs gaining much more recognition over the past few years, the way we as Americans watch television is bound to change. Television won’t just be coming from an American lens anymore — we will finally get to see other perspectives, not only of how people in other countries live, but of how they view us as well. Certain stereotypes in American media will not be as prevalent when we are able to watch media from different perspectives. The way we view programs depicting other cultures made in the U.S. will change: is it accurate, or is it just a stereotype? 

The job of a translator for television is incredibly difficult; they have very little time and money to ensure that their job is done accurately, and they are certainly not treated with the same respect as others on set. With the recent fascination with foreign programs as well as the outrage due to mistranslated subtitles, their job might just turn out to be a priority after all.