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'Squid Game' is the latest example of when subtitles are a little off

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you haven't already watched "Squid Game," you have probably heard about it. Netflix's new survival drama is set in South Korea, and its premise is not a happy one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Each of its players are deep in debt, but if they win, they'll have enough prize money to pay those loans off. The catch - losing costs you your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Squid Game" is yet another example of how Korean media is dominating the global market, but some viewers have noticed its English subtitles are a little off.

YOUNGMI MAYER: I'm Youngmi Mayer. I am a comedian based in New York City, and I'm also the co-host of "Feeling Asian" podcast.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Youngmi Mayer is fluent in Korean. And while watching "Squid Game," she noticed that the show's English captions didn't quite reflect what the characters were actually saying. She took her thoughts to TikTok - where else would you take this? - along with a scene from the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MAYER: Translation says, oh, I'm not a genius, but I can work it out. What she actually said was, I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And because of those inaccuracies, Youngmi Mayer says that audiences may not understand the show's cultural references.

MAYER: That is a huge trope in Korean media - the poor person that's smart and clever and just isn't wealthy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, translating subtitles for TV can be tricky. There are rules.

DENISE KRIPPER: There's space limitation that you have to keep in mind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Denise Kripper is a translation scholar and assistant professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois. She also has experience translating TV shows from English into Spanish.

KRIPPER: Translation in subtitles is usually two lines, and there's a certain number of characters that you cannot pass.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's also trying to fit it all within the constraints of character limits and scene speed. But Kripper says there's another challenge, one that's far trickier. Languages have different structures and different metaphors, so it can be really hard to accurately convey meaning. Jokes can be especially difficult, like this scene she had to translate from the sitcom "Friends."

KRIPPER: Chandler is waiting for the phone to ring, to hear from some woman, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meanwhile, Ross and Phoebe are doing a crossword.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

DAVID SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) Four letters - circle or hoop.

MATTHEW PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Ring, damn it, ring.

SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) Thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Denise Kripper says an exact translation of the scene doesn't really work in Spanish.

KRIPPER: To ring - the phone to ring is one word in Spanish, and a ring that you can wear on your fingers - a totally different one. So, again, this is a lot to work with for such a short amount of time, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kripper says in cases like this, the translator may have to change the dialogue in a scene rather than translate word for word and leave viewers confused. Youngmi Mayer says she knows translators are limited in what they can do but worries viewers who rely on subtitles when they watch fast-paced shows like "Squid Game" are getting short-changed.

MAYER: It just seems like maybe this is a time for us to just pause and rethink and restructure the old way of translations. Those metaphors and deep, like, very intelligently written ideas and ideologies that the writer's trying to express to us - they're getting literally just taken out of the script because the translation can't translate that in real time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the meantime, "Squid Game" fans who want to have a fuller understanding of the context of the show can do like Youngmi Mayer did when she watched "Breaking Bad" - or, really, any of us who enjoy parsing episodes of any series - and just pick up a smartphone, Google and never miss a pop culture reference again.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNG JAEIL'S "UNFOLDED..." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.