A group of 456 individuals desperately indebted in South Korea are thrown into a deadly tournament of children’s games. Rivaled with the promise of money, each other’s brutality and the imminence of death, only one will win.
This is the premise of the South Korean Netflix series phenomenon “Squid Game.”
The fictional drama has been viewed by 111 million accounts since debuting on Netflix on Sept. 17 and is the “biggest-ever series at launch” from Netflix, as reported by CNN. Despite the positive reviews and impressive numbers, there has been backlash around its English subtitle translations.
The controversy began with a TikTok post from fluent Korean speaker Youngmi Mayer, who pointed out “botched” subtitles changed the show’s meaning for English-speaking viewers — erasing cultural nuance, missing metaphors and Korean idioms.
Liberal arts and engineering senior Angellia Seguin said there is a dilemma with globalization, particularly with the spread of foreign media.
“[People] are getting exposure to other media, but at the same time, they’re also missing so much of that culture,” Seguin said.
Seguin said that Netflix’s translation was inauthentic to the original Korean script, with deeper meanings lost in translation and even “simplified for the English viewers.”
The TikToker, Mayer, recalled that when a character in the show tried to convince others to play the game with her, closed-caption subtitles read: “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out.” However, according to Mayer, the character actually says: “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.”
The more accurate translation emphasizes the wealth disparity in Korean society — a common trope in Korean media.
Other examples of inaccurate translations include the meaning behind the world gganbu, a Korean word to convey allyship. In English, the subtitles read, “we share everything,” yet in Korean, gganbu means “there is no ownership between me and you.”
Also, the first episode of the show was titled “Red light, green light,” yet in Korean it is titled “mugunghwa kkoci pieot seumnida.” Mugunghwa is the Korean national flower and when in bloom, the players must freeze.
Communications professor Maria Subert said that instead of losing opportunities for cultural awareness, it goes even further.
“Language is a philosophy; language is a core worldview; language is creating something that is powerful there and is powerful here,” Subert said. “So when you mistranslate, you harm something — losing something is more neutral.”
Subert said language is hurt by misrepresenting the original language and translating it into English poorly, sometimes on an elementary basis — diminishing both of their values simultaneously.
She said much of this mistranslation boils down to a lack of respect and that, throughout this process of cultural exchange, there should be less hierarchical communications and more dialogue.
“You need to know the taste, their ethics, the political system,” Subert said. “It is not the show’s role to be counter argumentative.”
Creating a product for the global market that will be enjoyable to those across cultures is a hefty ask, according to English professor Paul Marchbanks, who also teaches film.
“It still has the flavor of a culture; it’s going to have recognizable tropes and so on,” Marchbanks said. “You’re using actors and settings and things which are particular, so you get a sense of the local flavor.”
Marchbanks said the economic aspect is one that cannot be overlooked, particularly when talking about a global product.
“When we sacrifice the beauty of a culture for the sake of the bottom line, we’re commodifying art further than it normally is commodified,” Marchbanks said.
He recounted other movies in which nuance gets “thrown out the window” because he said oftentimes simplicity overrides complexity.
Moving forward, Marchbanks suggests a more thorough, cooperative approach to translation.
“Fidelity, for certain forms of cultural expression, is more important than cutting corners,” he said.
Computer science junior and vice president of Cal Poly’s Dongali, a Korean culture club, Won Kim, said inaccurate translations created missing opportunities for cultural awareness.
“The language [used in the show] isn’t just limited to what they’re talking about, it’s also nuanced in the culture that it’s embedded in,” Kim said. “Not being able to understand that is also reflective of not being able to understand Eastern culture.”
Yet, Kim said he ultimately grants translators some slack, as cultural context is difficult to learn, let alone interpret to an audience.
Kim said some things can only be understood through organic experience — like differences in greetings or how friends converse.
“Translation is still a very difficult thing to do when both sides don’t know each other’s story,” Kim said. “They don’t know the culture that they’ve been raised in, the society that they’re in, the political atmosphere of that place; those all contribute to how people speak and that’s something very hard to explain, let alone [in a] a single series.”
He said audiences should be more understanding — as translators are still navigating the world of global media.
“The whole idea that you can try to grasp perfectly like the ideas and the values of a certain society, from a different standpoint, [and not offend anyone] — that itself is pretty selfish,” Kim said.
Instead of seeing this mistranslation as a wholly negative, Kim sees another side.
“This is a good step; the fact that people are catching translation errors in the first place, shows that people are even remotely more interested in translations,” Kim said.
Having a conversation about criticism lends way to progress, he said.
“At the end of the day, the best way to learn, if you’re not in that place, is to talk with someone who is and have that back and forth,” Kim said.