There’s nothing better than curling up on the sofa to watch a series. And what’s even better is the fact that you can now watch or stream South Korean dramas and series. They’ve been popular for quite some time now, stimulated by the export of Korean culture as the government seeks to boost its global soft power. But one Korean series that you would have definitely heard about is the one known as Squid Game. According to Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos, this series has “a very good chance” of being Netflix’s most popular show ever.
However, this article is not about the Squid Game translation that went wrong as there are plenty of articles on the topic already. We are aiming to anticipate what is going to be the next Korean series to pick your attention and top of that a guide on what to watch out for, so you know how to read between the lines (subtitles).
So we’ve got a recommendation for you and on top of this, we asked our media expert Semi Hong to watch it with English subtitles and all.
Have you heard about “My Name”? If the answer is negative, then it is time to do some research and check it out. “My Name” is a story about a woman who joins a gang to avenge her father’s death and then goes undercover as a cop. No more teasers, we promise! We do have some other things to say about it though…
The series is in a genre that is known as Crime and Noir, which has certain features that are typical for its kind. One of these being a lot of curses and swear words. They are sometimes full of real action, gunfights, street brawls, and lots of complicated relationships. I am sure we already spiked your interest with that description but one thing that can surely spoil your true experience while watching this is inadequate translation.
The Major Slip-Ups in Subtitling Korean Productions
Semi, who is also a native Korean speaker and heading our 1-StopMedia brand, shares that one thing the subtitles of My Name are lacking is surely the presence of swear words. As the Noir genre has “explicit vocabulary” as a specific feature, it is almost obligatory to find the proper way to transmit these in the proper way into English as well. We are aware that when subtitles are created in another language, the translation avoids swear words, however, when this is part of the genre, it is expected by the audience to have them. The lack of those in the subtitles is twisting the meaning and message the story conveys.
If we have to be particular in the series “My Name” words like f**k and sh*t are missing in many places in the English subtitles. As Semi explained: English subtitles do not contain many swear words which actually express and amplify actors’ emotions when being used”, so the emotions transmitted in English are bland and plain, when I see the subtitles, while the actual Korean words are pretty harsh and strong.
There is a very bright example in “My Name” with the word “짭새(Jjabsae)”, which is a derogatory word for police, which actually gives more taste to the conversation in the show. However, this word is missing in the translated version of the subtitle and the expression became very plain.
I would add that Korean is a rather delicate and sensitive language describing complex relationships between people, emotions, colors and even seasons. Partly this is happening with the usage of honorifics which play a huge role in Korean culture. There are dozens of ways to address a person depending on their age, rank, gender, status, social standing, and more.
The connoisseurs of Korean dramas would also pose the question of westernization of the genre especially with their growing popularity and the involvement of large western production companies like Netflix. Certain features can be mildly “watered down”, so the series look more appealing to the western audience.
Another interesting feature to mention is the expectation of a sequel, which is so typical for popular series. However, don’t expect this to happen for Korean dramas, as usually one season wraps up the whole story and there is no next season.
The demand for Asian media is only set to increase as more and more local content is produced. Along with that there is a certain intrigue in the far more different movie and media culture there is in Asia and this is a breath of fresh air in the streamlined world of western media. Huge companies like Netflix are looking for diversification and with this sometimes the language barrier becomes more visible than ever.
Because of the intricacies of Asian languages, a few small mistakes can make entire characters and episodes make no sense as well as convey a completely different message making the viewer experience way worse as well as pissing off a lot of native speakers. The importance of localization in entertainment cannot be underestimated and cultural nuances and depth need to find a way to reach the greater audience it is intended for in order to give them richer, more accurate entertainment.