What’s in a title: Don’t judge a drama by its cover
We’re all familiar with the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” It means that what you see isn’t always what you get, and what something looks like isn’t always what it is. But how does this idea work in the world of K-dramas? What element acts as the “cover” of a K-drama?
More than the director, cast, or even promo materials, a drama’s title has a huge part to play in how we perceive it. While the director, writer, and production team can give us hints about the style and tone of the drama, and the cast is sometimes enough to make us tune in or out (guilty!), the title is one of the first things to give us a clue about the story.
It goes without saying that the title of any creative work has great importance, from paintings, sculptures, novels, and poems, right down to tvN’s latest weeknight drama. If you think about it one way, titles function as the thesis statement of the work. Great novels from Great Expectations to The Catcher in the Rye just wouldn’t be the same if they were called Pip or The Caulfield Children. These novels titles, as an example, start telling us the story before we’ve even cracked them opened.
Similarly, in dramaland, good titles tell us something important about the story we’re about to experience. It can be a clue about the hero or heroine whose tale we’ll hear — dramas like Healer, City Hunter, Seven Day Queen and have done this quite well. These sorts of titles serve as the first point of introduction to the protagonist, and regardless of the kind of story we’re about to get, the relationship between the protagonist and audience is a crucial one. They’re also often dramas that feature a larger-than-life hero, or an important historical figure.
It’s no secret that dramaland loves tropes, so drama titles have more than their fair share of tropification. Allegorical, poetic, and/or nature-themed title? Probably a sageuk (see: Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, The Moon Embracing the Sun, and Tree With Deep Roots). Action word or phrase? Action or crime thriller, usually (see: Save Me, Kill It, etc). Abstract title that intrigues (or doesn’t)? Likely a melodrama (see: Come Here and Hug Me, Full Sun, Love in Sadness).
Though there are a lot of typical titles, other dramas have been a bit more inventive. I loved how What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim’s title was basically the problem statement of the drama’s entire plot. Some other great drama titles like My Ajusshi and Oh Hae-young Again told us a lot about the story before we even watched it. Others, like Misaeng and A Beautiful World, paved the way for the story’s themes in a way that built the drama’s tone, and set up the metaphors to come.
Of course, a strong or unique title doesn’t guarantee a great drama (see: Cheese in the Trap). But at the same time, a great drama can have a lousy title. Have you ever watched a drama that was so poorly titled you felt like you had to correct people’s assumptions about its value and substance? Poor titles confuse our expectations of the story, or they market the drama as something different than what we get.
Romance is a Bonus Book is a good example of this phenomenon. Titled as a romance and marketed as a noona romance, this drama’s title muddied what the story was really about. It was actually a gorgeous, simple tale of people that worked in a small publishing house, and the drama brought together many thoughts about life, love, and the importance of the written word.
In other words, the real romance in this drama was with books. The relationship between the lead characters played by Lee Jong-seok and Lee Na-young was almost secondary. I can’t help but think a more fitting title for this drama would have been after the publishing house: Gyeoroo. Lee Na-young’s heroine tells us early on that this is an archaic word that means “the victorious life” — and there’s no better word or phrase to convey what Romance is a Bonus Book was really about at its core.
That was one example, but there’s no shortage of drama titles that didn’t do the drama justice — or worse, did it harm. From the terminal illness drama Scent of a Woman, to cute rom-com Oh My Venus, to one of the most notorious titles in all of dramaland, ahem, Manhole — sometimes K-dramas leave us scratching our heads at their title choices.
Were these titles selected because they sound good and might do a better job of selling the drama than a more subtle title would? Or did the writers really struggle to find a crowd-friendly title that would give viewers the gist of the drama? Regardless of whether we think they are good or bad, inventive or gimmicky, there’s no denying the fact that more often than not, Korean drama titles suffer. Strong working titles give way to flashier yet more generic titles — Blue Eyes became Kill It, and so on.
K-drama titles experience an extra level of complication: they not only have a “literal title” (the Korean titles translated into English), but they are often saddled with their very own English title too. As if the difficulty of translating nuances into another language wasn’t enough to rob them of their original color, these English titles become something separate to the drama entirely. And they’re often utterly bland.
Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food earned the English title Something in the Rain which is about as vague and boring as you can get. And Just Between Lovers earned the equally gimmicky English title Rain or Shine (I’m not sure which is worse, since neither seem to do the drama justice). Regardless, benign titles that reference the weather seem like the industry’s best effort when trying to market a drama to an international audience.
Another cost of translating Korean titles into English is that, for the most part, clever wordplay and puns are totally wiped out. While I accept that these nuances are next to impossible to translate succinctly (hence the dawn of the English title), that doesn’t stop me from mourning all the wordplay that’s missed. Take Surplus Princess, which was about a mermaid who wished to become human. There’s the play on words, as “surplus princess” and “mermaid” sound nearly the same in Korean, but when you break down the Korean word for mermaid (it’s literally “human-fish princess”), that adds yet another layer to the wordplay. Then we have Go Back Spouses, about an unhappily married couple suddenly transported back in time to their pre-marriage college years. The drama had hijinks and moving emotional beats and its title with its play on the words “go back” and “confession” (which sound the same in Korean) succinctly explains the drama’s conceit.
Likewise, the many dramas that have punny titles that play with their hero or heroine’s name to lend a double meaning are also lost in translation. Last year’s revenge rom-com My Strange Hero was about a young high school dropout named Bok-soo who goes back to school to exact revenge for past wrongs. The literal Korean title was simply, Bok-soo’s Back. Unpacking that, “bok-soo” means revenge in Korean — and our strange hero Bok-soo was back for his revenge.
The title of a drama, at its best, should evoke the feeling of the drama, or give us a look into the protagonists and the story that awaits them. But let’s be real — international K-drama fans are used to the battle with drama titles, and are pretty understanding when it comes to title translation fails.
For all the difficulties that drama titles face, they still manage to get the point across. And really, if we know we have a great drama in front of us, poor titles, bland titles, and even titles lost in translation, become infinitely forgivable. We’ve learned not to judge a drama by its cover.