International Films Lost in Translation


The Mugunghwa, or the national flower of Korea. Credit: Pxfuel

As non-English, international films rise in popularity, the subsequent discourse surrounding how the film should be conveyed continues. The idea of subtitles is foreign to many, and often these subtitles are mistranslated, leading to differing meanings emerging from the same piece of dialogue. These mistranslations are not to be taken lightly—they can often entirely shift the meaning of a passage.

“I think one of the main difficulties of subtitling is that there are often a lot of cultural differences between the languages and countries that speak those languages,” states Seoyun Kim, a board member of the Language Hub. “Some TV shows tend to make allusions to famous shows, books, movies, etc. that people of that culture know or at least heard about, so people who do not speak that language will not be able to understand the context because they won’t be able to understand those allusions.”

The detrimental effects of these lost translations can be seen in the Korean Netflix series “Squid Game”, a commentary surrounding the working class and the corrupt upper class in South Korea.

For example, the very first game in Squid Game—red light green light. Or, as Koreans would call it, “the Mugunghwa flower has bloomed.” The Mugunghwa, or hibiscus, is the national flower of Korea representing perseverance, blooming even in times of extreme hardship. Suddenly, when the significance behind the flower is revealed, the desperation of the participants becomes much darker as they relentlessly try to survive.

An example of a mistranslation can be seen during Episode 6, where Youngmi, a woman determined to win the competition no matter what, says, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it to work out, huh?” However, many Koreans have noted that the translation is more akin to “I’ve never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart.” With this new translation, Youngmi’s true character is shown— smart, yet was unable to cultivate their knowledge due to being poor. She is not simply the poor dumb girl, but she is a clever girl who could never to reach her full potential due to her economic status.

Even the final game, the squid game itself, is an example where subtitles cannot fully convey the true meaning of the game.

Squid Game was the most physically aggressive childhood game I played in neighborhood alleys as a kid, which is why I also loved it the most,” mentions Hwang Donghyuk, the director of the film. “In a way, it’s the most symbolic game that reflects today’s competitive society, so I picked it out as the show’s title”. Even the film’s title would carry different meanings based on if you spent your childhood in Korea or not.

“Translations are very tricky,” Seoyun admitted. “Oftentimes there are phrases or expressions that I want to use but can’t seem to translate perfectly from one language to another, which sometimes makes me frustrated.”

While cultural barriers cannot be passed with subtitles, they still have forever been an essential feature of media, whether it be to translate k-dramas, animes, telenovelas, and more. They can still help pass language barriers, and it allows people to consume pieces of media they would have never consumed before. 

But, it is still important to note that subtitles are not a fail-proof translation method. Barriers will continue to exist within the media. However, these barriers can slowly be removed by educating others and yourself on different cultures.