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Translators as Storytellers – Thoughts Arising from Squid Game Subtitles

The Korean Netflix series, Squid Game, has raised some intense debate about translation issues. Since most of the viewers are not Korean-speaking, translated subtitles are essential for them to follow the dialogue. It all started after a Korean speaker, Youngmi Mayer, claimed that the English subtitles were “so bad” that the original meaning was often lost.

Translators as Storytellers

Translators are storytellers. They do not simply engage in word-for-word or phrase-by-phrase substitution, but seek to evoke emotions and insights through the stories they tell. Their main aim and their KPI (key performance indicator) are whether the story is told clearly, accurately and naturally, but in another language. Balancing all these factors can mean that lengthy explanations are not be possible as they interrupt the flow of the story. This is especially so for film subtitles! Such decisions are hard to make, and will always be disputed.

Translators also have to consider how the audience is likely to understand or react, and tell the story in such a way as to evoke the responses intended by the show’s scriptwriters and producers – is it a joke, is there a cultural reference or nuance, does is make use of wordplay? All these may require change and adaptation to the literal meaning of words to make sure that resulting text makes sense and creates the same audience reaction in the other language.

Translating the ‘Untranslatable’

But what if a word is uniquely culture-specific? Such words may be ‘untranslatable’ if the hearer does not have a genuine understanding of the source culture and language.

An example of an ‘untranslatable’ cultural term that was used in Squid Game is the honorific hyung or ‘older brother’. There is no term in English which adequately captures the nuances of this Korean honorific. In Korean society, people do not address each other by name unless they are friends of the same age. A younger man would address an older male friend as hyung to indicate a close friendship.

In the drama, Ali, a Pakistani migrant worker, began by addressing another participant, Sang Woo, as sajang-nim or ‘CEO’, a term foreign workers are taught to use to address their Korean bosses. As their friendship deepened, Sang Woo asked Ali to call him hyung. However, the poignancy of this moment was lost as there is no equivalent English word which would convey the closeness implied by this term of address. In the English subtitles, the line “Call me hyung” was translated as “Call me Sang Woo”. Korean speakers have criticised this choice, but perhaps there was no better option given the constraints of subtitling?

Bible Translation – Bringing Transformation Through Telling God’s Story

Bible translators are also storytellers – their aim is to tell the story of God and his dealings with mankind in the heart language of the hearers. They seek to make God’s power, love and his ultimate plan for mankind shine through, in every language and culture, and evoke a response that brings transformation to the hearts and lives of every people group. Just as the translators in Squid Game struggled with choosing words and expressions, Bible translators also strive daily to find the best way to tell God’s story. Please pray for those who are engaged in this important work!

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