Subtitles – priority or afterthought?

Subtitles alphabet square on wooden background.

In part thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, consumption of media has become far more international, and brilliant shows such as Dark and Money Heist have become more accessible to English-native viewers. One of the predominant factors in making these shows so accessible is through subtitles/captions.  

Given the increased consumption of non-English media, the salience of good-quality subtitles is higher than ever. However, the question must then be asked – is the subtitling process being given the respect it deserves? Right now, it’s a mixed bag, with a Netflix spokesperson even admitting that “Our subtitles and dubbing are good but not yet great”.

At Dialogue, we believe the subtitling and localisation process should be a priority in making media accessible to an international audience, as well as the hard of hearing. After all, without good subtitles, a creator’s intended message may well be, quite literally, lost in translation. To demonstrate this in more detail, let’s look at two pieces of media with the same language combination of subtitles: Korean – English.

Subtitling gone right – Parasite

It has been well documented that Parasite director Bong Joon Ho has a great understanding of how important good subtitles are in the accessibility of non-English media for English native speakers. Famously saying “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films” And his approach to the subtitle translation of the film’s complex script falls very much in line with this. So much so, that the brilliant translation by Darcy Paquet is seen by many to be a major contributing factor to the film’s international success.

A good translator, however, performs best when given the best possible tools to work with. It is widely understood that Paquet and director Bong discussed the translation of Parasite in detail, both prior to and during the subtitling process, with Paquet mentioning how Bong gave a lot of guidance about which pieces of dialogue required greatest emphasis. A good example of the fruits of Bong’s labour lies in Paquet’s translation of “Jjapaguri”, a Korean dish created by combining two brands of instant noodles, to make “Ram-don”. As explained in an interview with Korea Now, Paquet needed to find two instant noodles that would be more well-known to an international audience. He went for Ramen, and Udon, hence, Ram-don. Now, Ram-don/Jjapaguri is an internationally-known and loved dish, and a real testament to the localisation work of Bong/Paquet.

Subtitling gone wrong – Squid Game

Unfortunately, there are many stories of subtitles depreciating the impact of a film or TV show, rather than elevating it. A recent example is the drama Squid Game. After bursting onto our screens and becoming Netflix’s biggest hit almost overnight, discussion soon turned to the subtitles accompanying the Korean-language hit, with some saying that an English viewer is watching an entirely different show to a Korean viewer. When discussing Squid Game’s subtitles, it is worth mentioning that much of the critique focused on the closed captions for the hard of hearing, automatically generated from the dubbed English rather than the translated subtitles. The differences between these, however, are a matter for another blog.

Much of the criticism was centred around the portrayal of Han Mi-nyeo, and according to Youngmi Mayer, who arguably brought this discussion into the mainstream, both the subtitles and captions struggle to truly represent Mi-nyeo as the characterisation of a “huge trope in Korean media – the poor person that’s smart and clever and that just isn’t wealthy“.

Source: Buzzfeed

Mayer suggests an alternative translation to the above line would be “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.” This would reinforce the aforementioned trope and more closely align Mi-nyeo’s English dialogue with the intended meaning of the original Korean.

The debate around Squid Game’s English subtitles rages on. However, when discussion about a piece of international media focuses more on the quality of translation than the film/TV show itself, there runs the risk of the overarching message being lost or forgotten.

At Dialogue, we understand the complexities of translation for media, and offer multilingual subtitling and voiceover services for a range of video mediums, such as eLearning, ads and more. To find out more about our services, click here.

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