Do we really understand “Squid Game”? The Difference between Subtitles and Captions

Squid Game is a super popular TV show these days. But are people really understanding it? Hwang Donghyuk created the South Korean dystopian drama. It has been viewed in over 90 countries and has been sub-titled in 31 languages. The show was also dubbed into 13 languages. This is part of a wider trend where English-speaking viewers are increasingly interested in translated content. Netflix claims that views of non-English-language titles increased by more than 50% in 2020 according to their own statistics (which they are notoriously reluctant to disclose). The Netflix series Lupin, which is French-language, is its most-watched.

Translation is an art. Many multilingual and bilingual Korean speakers have highlighted the ways Netflix’s closed captions have “botched” the show. Youngi Mayer, comedian and co-host on the Feeling Asian podcast, sparked controversy in a viral Twitter thread and a follow-up TikTok thread about whether people who don’t speak Korean fluently “really watched” the show. Mayer has since spoken with a variety of media outlets about the importance to translate meaning and metaphor over literal words.

It turns out that there is a way to better experience Squid Game (and other non-English-language films and shows): Selecting the right subtitle track. The difference in the text you see at the bottom of your screen can make a big difference to your viewing experience.

Closed captions versus subtitles

Closed captions and subtitles are visual aids. Dubbing involves the translation of speech into another language and lip-syncing the new dialogue. Dubbing will always involve changes to the dialogue. This is not because translators are lazy but because they don’t know how to translate everything exactly. Also, the new script must be designed so that the dialogue is roughly in line with the actors’ mouth movements.

Subtitles can be used to match dialogue spoken. They don’t usually include background noises and other audio elements. Subtitles assume that the audience can hear the audio, but they need text to complement it (e.g. in a direct translation or multiple languages used within one film).

Closed captions (or CCs) do not assume that the audience can understand what’s going on on screen. The National Association of the Deaf states that closed captions (or CCs) “not only display words in the textual equivalent of spoken dialog or narration but also include speaker identification and sound effects and music description.” This means that when dubbed films are made, closed captions will be read text based on the new dialogue.

As a rule of thumb, subtitles are created for people who are able to hear but not understand the dialogue. Close captions are for people who are unable to hear any audio. In the case of Squid Game many Korean speakers assert that the subtitles (translated directly from the original script) are better than the closed captions based on the audio.

What is possible to get lost in translation?

Mayer cites one example in TikTok, which has more than 10 million views. It explains the potential differences between subtitles and captions. Mayer uses an example where a caption reads “I’m not genius, but it still worked out,” while Mayer states that the actual Korean dialogue is “I am very intelligent.” Mayer says that this translation is a “sterilization” of a “huge trope found in Korean media,” in the sense that poor characters are smart but not wealthy enough to afford education.

Translation is not an exact science. It is, however, an art form that is often undervalued. Case-in-point: comments below that viral video are full of people calling Mayer’s translations incorrect for one reason or the other. The debate about translations is important, but it doesn’t mean that non-Korean speakers should be discouraged from watching Squid Game. Just make sure to watch it with subtitles, and not the captions.

How to change subtitle settings on Netflix

It is easy to switch between closed captions and subtitles. The caption options for Squid Game are found in the bottom right corner of your Netflix screen. Select “English” under the “Subtitles” header and not “English [CC]. This is a good rule of thumb to remember when you watch any TV or film in translation. You will not find every movie on every streaming site or DVD that has subtitles and captions. However, if you do have the option, the first is the best.

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