Squid Game, the South Korean survival drama centered around twisted versions of traditional children’s games, is on track to become the streaming platform’s most-watched show ever.
Apart from its bizarre premise—hundreds of desperately cash-strapped people are literally forced to fight to the death through familiar childhood games for a chance to win millions of dollars—its gripping characters with rich backstories and commentary on capitalism have resonated with viewers around the world. Considering the meteoric rise of K-dramas over the past few years, the success of Squid Game was a long time coming.
As global viewers ready their popcorn to binge-watch the series, we’re inevitably faced with the perennial debate that comes with watching shows in a language we don’t speak: subbed or dubbed? Some people have no choice but to stick to one of the two options, but for those who do have the choice, here are things to consider before pressing play.
Translation limitations is a problem that plagues most (if not all) shows, whether in the dubbing or subtitles. According to Netflix guidelines, translated subtitles need to take into account viewers’ reading speed, which means they are limited to a certain number of characters. The guidelines try to limit changing dialogue unless reading speed and synchronicity to the audio are an issue.
The problem of such practical constraints is even more pronounced in shows dubbed into another language, where translations have to sync with characters’ lip and body movements. While Netflix has sought to improve its dubbing so that its content can reach a wider audience, the unnatural nature of dubbed content remains a drawback for some viewers.
On social media, bilingual Korean speakers are pointing out mistranslations in the English-dubbed version of Squid Game. They may seem minor, but some argue that non-Korean speakers are missing out on the show’s nuances—like the difference between a more aggressive “what are you looking at?” (how it appears in the subtitles) and a more dismissive “go away” (spoken in the English dub).
VICE compared the dubbed and subbed versions of the episodes against the original Korean dialogue, and here’s what we found: Subtitles appear to be way more accurate than the dubbing in English.
In some cases, the differences were hardly discernible in context, so they were easy to let slide.
For example, in the dubbing, character Cho Sang-woo’s mother tells her son, who she believes is on a business trip abroad, “I’m just worried that you might get me, you know, something that’s really way too expensive.” Meanwhile, the subtitles say, “Don’t skip meals and dress warmly.” The line is different, but the underlying sentiment remains the same: A mother looking after her son.
In another episode, main character Seong Gi-hun calls fellow player Han Mi-nyeo “grandma,” in the English dub, which sounds more provoking compared to the “ma’am,” in the subtitles. In the original Korean version, he says “ajumeoni,” which refers to a married or middle-aged woman in a polite manner.
In some cases, however, a huge part of what the writers intended to deliver is lost. In the scene where Mi-nyeo begs main antagonist Jang Deok-su to include her in his team, he says, “I’m sorry, we’ve got 10 already” in the dubbing, but a more irritated and apathetic, “Can’t you see? We have exactly 10 people” is in the subtitles.
In one episode, a young female player uses the word “kkondae” to refer to the older male players—derogatory slang for somebody condescending and stubborn. Young Koreans use this word to criticize those in their 50s and 60s, who boss them around, exacerbating the tension among generations. This was translated in the dubbed version as, “I can’t picture you going around here and begging these jerks,” which misses any reference to age. In the subtitles, it appears as “Then will you beg those boomers to play with you?” which retains some of that nuance related to age.
Let’s face it: When watching a film in a language we don’t speak or understand, we have to accept that we’re going to miss out on some cultural context—things like accents, puns, and hyperlocal references are nearly impossible to catch. (But that shouldn’t deter us from watching them—good shows are good shows.)
In Korea, where it’s common to address people with honorifics like oppa/hyung (older brother) and ajeossi (sir), the nuances of these terms of respect are doomed to be lost in translation (Unless, of course, you’re a massive K-drama fan). In the show, “oppa,” which a woman can use to address a close older guy in Korean, is sometimes replaced with “babe,” “old man,” or “mister,” depending on the situation. On the other hand, “hyung” used by men to mean the same thing, is alternatively presented by calling each other’s first names in the English dub, or simply left out of the dialogue.
Naturally, in Squid Game, some of these elements are lost in both the dubbed and subbed versions.
For example, only Korean speakers would be able to catch the fact that the character Kang Sae-byeok, who we later learn is a North Korean defector, changed her North Korean accent when speaking to the other players, perhaps as an attempt to assimilate.
When it comes to conveying cultural context, the dubbed and subbed versions seem to be on the same level.
Besides its thought-provoking themes, Squid Game shines because of its riveting characters. From nonverbal noises to vocal pitch, all these cues affect the way we perceive different characters.
For example, shortly after we’re introduced to protagonist Gi-hun’s financial problems, we see him racking his brains trying to crack the password to his mother’s ATM card. In the original Korean audio track, Gi-hun’s boiling frustration is palpable through the actor’s exasperated groans and sighs, yet it sounds much more toned down and polished in the dubbed version.
Voice acting is an art in itself, but there remain inevitable differences between the voice of the original actor and the voice artist’s. The voice acting in dubbed shows is usually recorded in a studio, and this controlled environment means that some details—such as when characters stutter or enunciate certain sounds—are elided. Watching with subtitles allows viewers to understand the dialogue without missing out on the nonverbal cues from the original actors’ vocal performance.
Verdict: If you can, watch Squid Game in the original Korean audio, with English subtitles.
You’ll probably miss out on some cultural context in either option, but subs trump dubs in giving a fuller Squid Game experience. So take the advice from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
That goes for TV, too.
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