I was washing dishes the other day and watching a Spanish Netflix show, as one does. But when I turned the voice dubbing on so I didn’t have to read subtitles, I noticed something odd. The high-stakes scenes and violent outbursts were accompanied by dialogue that was considerably more polite than what was playing out on screen. So, I turned the subtitles back on to compare, and what do you know: the subtitles had no trouble teaching me how to hurl creative Spanish insults. I mean, I wouldn’t want to accidentally yell a bland, Spanish adjective instead of the real thing.
Apparently, this is a very common issue (the bland translating, not the learning of Spanish insults) and this has viewers all over the world feeling cheated.
This issue has only intensified with Squid Game’s massive popularity. The English subtitles for the show, especially the closed captions, have become controversial for poor translation, at least according to critics such as Youngmi Mayer on social media.
But subtitles can’t always be perfect. Translation isn’t an exact science, and some phrases, sayings, and sometimes whole concepts, simply do not exist in the language they are being translated into. This leads to inconsistencies between the original and translated versions.
It’s easy to accidentally alter the meaning of a translated line of dialogue if the translator misses a reference, which can happen innocently enough in a show rife with pop culture references. Even if you speak the language perfectly, there are some references that are bound to go over your head.
And in other cases, translators are forced to slightly alter content if a culture is unlikely to understand the reference that was in the original language. For instance, in an episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai says “You’ll have to Kill Bill me to get me into that (outfit).” The Finnish subtitled translation changes the Kill Bill reference so it reads, “The only way I’ll wear that is if I’m dead,” according to an article by Riikka Vänni. In another episode, Lorelai’s Star Trek reference in the following line: “You better walk really fast, like ‘Warp speed, Mr. Sulu’ kind of fast,” was removed and replaced with the Finnish word “valonnopeudella,” according to Vänni, which means travelling faster than the speed of light.
The concerning part is when translators engage in censorship in order to “protect” their audiences, and change content based on what they think is appropriate, not based on what the most understandable translation is. The changes can have major repercussions on the plot. For instance, in the Friends episode “The One with the Two Bullies,” Rachel and Monica agree to kiss for one minute in order to get their apartment back from Joey and Chandler. However, in one Spanish translation of the episode, the subtitles were changed to read “Rachel y yo los besaremos por un minute,” meaning “Rachel and I will kiss you (Joey and Chandler) for one minute,” according to an article written by Gabriela Scandura in Meta journal. The translator obviously thought that two women kissing was wildly inappropriate, but that it was fine for them to be kissing their male friends instead.
While there are certainly issues with subtitling, for the most part, subtitles ensure that the original intent of the actors and directors is preserved onscreen.
Voice dubbing, on the other hand, is even further removed from the original version: Voice actors can sound completely different than the original actors (take Rob Brydon’s displeasure with his dubbed Spanish voice in The Trip for example), and lines can still be leveled with the same amount of censorship and unreliable translation used for subtitling.
In fact, Joe Keeley noted in an article on MakeUseOf, that voice dubbing is often created without the original creators of the series or film, and that the scripts are even changed so the translated version more closely matches the mouth movements the original actors are making onscreen. This means that the translations are altered further and can differ greatly from the original meaning.
I’ll admit that voice dubbing is more convenient — I’d rather not squint at tiny subtitles when I want to binge watch Money Heist at 1 a.m. — but when the tone, emphasis, and whole timber of the actor’s voice is inevitably different than the original version, it’s almost like you’re watching a completely different show.
Whether you prefer voice dubbing or subtitles, it’s exciting to know that we have more options beyond English-based shows. We don’t have to spend our precious time rewatching Selling Sunset when I’m sure there are countless K-Dramas that serve up just as many fights about who should and shouldn’t be invited to the wedding, and probably even better fashion.
Yes, it is a little scary that translators have the power to change the plot lines of shows and completely alter the messages that audiences interpret, but on the other hand, without translation, we miss out on quality foreign language films and series altogether.