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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.

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Oh yes, titles! I often look at the Korean title, and not that I know Korean, but I try to use the English translation that better fits the Korean. Case in point is MY STRANGE HERO/BOK SOO IS BACK. The latter has a pun. I prefer puns hehe.

This made me smile: "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?"

Yes. NAKED FIREMAN. Right @mary ? XD

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I believe @kimbapnoona warned us the title would be very deceiving.

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Would it be too much to ask to just change it to
Rarely Half-naked And Occasionally Fire Fighting Man as @dokutokunaneko suggested?

And thank you @justme for your sage advice regarding adding the search term "kdrama" if one ever googles this drama.

http://www.dramabeans.com/members/kimbapnoona/activity/661741/

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Haha, I remember the debates about that drama. 😂
I gotta admit, that title is what convinced me to not watch it. Sorry, I judged it by its title!😬

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This is a great write up. I've never thought of drama titles as covers in the sense that book covers are. This is because I'm an international viewer and I read subtitles. So I always assume the English translated title isn't very good. I tend to think of the actors or writers as the covers. I will judge a writer or actor before I ever judge the title I only remember the title in order to recommend the drama lol, otherwise the title is irrelevant. So this is an interesting perspective.

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Hmmm... I am sort of the same as you @kafiyah-bello I don't judge based on titles because I assume that the English translation will not be able to carry the nuance of the 'actual' title in Korean. Instead of going in for the actors, I go in for the premise and possible plot.

I can even forget the titles even while I'm still watching the series, 😬 would you believe it ... and once the show is done, if it did not really make a deep connection for me, I may also forget the title, 🙄 although I'd remember something of the plot. 😝

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Yes same here. Very rarely will I judge a drama based on the title itself because I always assume the title is just poorly translated or they did what they could. But for me the big judgement is whose in it and who wrote or directed it then I'll bother with the title. So interesting points by the writer of this post!! I didn't think about that!

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Great article. I remember a discussion here a long time ago about the subtle meaning of High School King of Savvy.

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I do have an issue with some of official English titles. For example Goong. When YA Entertainment production team brought over the DVD rights to North America, Goong became Princess Hours!! Like 💁‍♀️ How?? Goong is Palace in English and I would have preferred that one word title since it’s totally related to what the drama is rather than Princess Hours. Like what is even Princess Hours?

Also mentioning here my most hated drama ever - Exhibition of Fireworks. Lol. How is that title related to the drama beats me. I hate that drama with a passion for a reason.

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The worst is Jealousy Incarnate, which Netflix gave the English title 'Don't Dare to Dream".

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😂😂😂

yeah wow that’s... horrible

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Also I found out this morning they added 'Chief Kim' as 'Good Manager', which is... what??

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We need to get a mole into Netflix, KBS, SBS to find out how they come up with this stuff.

Or, we could have a DB contest for the “best” beanie created scenario on how these titles come to be? I mean, we have some creative writer in our community!

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@hebang FlyingTool My contest entry: The stations throw darts at a dartboard with basic English words.

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Netflix is so desperate not to scare viewers off with Korean names 😂

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I think they throw those word magnets at the refrigerator door in the break room and see what sticks.

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eww, what?

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Netflix is not the culprit. Don't Dare to Dream and Good Manager are the titles given by SBS and KBS.

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Its as though Netflix is renaming k-dramas purposefully to drive people away. Why did they have to rename 'Forest of Secrets' a random title like 'Stranger'?

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Again, Netflix does not rename K-dramas. The drama title is Stranger on tvN's website.

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And it was Stranger back on Dramafever, too. But the point still stands: why on Earth did they (whoever "they" are) choose a boring generic title when they could have had Forest of Secrets?

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How is that even the same thing? Ugh! Makes me mad!

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@leetennant ChinguMode,

I recall reading somewhere that JEALOUSY INCARNATE can also be read as "jealous Hwa-shin" -- the given name of Jo Jung-seok's character. I thought it was perfect.

I agree that DON'T DARE TO DREAM is dreadful.

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Some of my favourite titles:

What’s wrong with Secretary Kim - very long title to write over again but it catches your attention and you want to know what is really wrong with Secretary Kim. Unfortunate I dropped the drama

SKY Castle - captivating title. I thought at first the title came about because the characters think they are “above” the law. So like castle in the sky. Group of elitists trying to up one another. While that is true, there’s more to it on the title. SKY Castle is the name of the elite neighbourhood they live in where parents all went to the prestigious Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Very nice play on the title!

I agree Another Oh Hae Young has a catchy title too. I didn’t get it at first then after yep there were two Oh Hae Young!

Reply / Answer Me 1997, 1994, 1998 - just from the title alone you would know it would be about nostalgia! And they did not disappoint.

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What's Wrong with Secretary Kim is the webtoon title. I am bitter the drama title of webtoon July Found By Chance was changed to A Day Found by Chance.

SKY Castle's original title was Princess Maker, a wordplay on "kingmaker" but sounds less posh.

Answer Me is another unconventional title used by Dramabeans. Elsewhere, it is always called Reply. (Nor is Trash ever called Garbage.)

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Oh Haeyoung also sounds like misunderstanding so putting Ddo in front, they're saying it's going to be another misunderatanding. Clever title, indeed!

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Oh true Exhibition that was just a workplace drama right?😂

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A drama special's literal title, SNOW LOTUS (SULRYULHWAN), explained a crucial scene in the plot, which had seemed oddly out of place to me. As soon as I learned of the alternate name, a light bulb went off. The English title, LUCID DREAM, sort of fit (IIRC, it was the name of the protagonist's gaming software company), but didn't convey the true essence of the story, which reached far back in time.

PS: Nice 2-part show with Ji Jin-hee as the male lead.

http://asianwiki.com/Lucid_Dream_(Drama_Special)

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I dont even consider titles when choosing to watch a drama. I find titles often misleading or just... they don’t even make sense. I usually even refer to dramas by the title’s initials or by the main actor’s affiliation to it (ie You know the drama with XXX actor). Now that i think of it, i think my favorite titles are those that express the theme of the drama, or those that express a random meaningful sentence said in the drama (misaeng or incomplete life).

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I dont even consider titles when choosing to watch a drama. I find titles often misleading or just... they don’t even make sense. I usually even refer to dramas by the title’s initials or by the main actor’s affiliation to it (ie You know the drama with Such or such actor). Now that i think of it, i think my favorite titles are those that express the theme of the drama, or those that express a random meaningful sentence said in the drama (misaeng or incomplete life).

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I prefer literal titles to English titles e.g., Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, Fox Bride Star, Red Moon, Blue Sun. Unfortunately, wordplay and puns are lost in translation. For Her Private Life, international K-drama fans are expected to know "Private Life" is a wordplay on "sasaeng fan." Like My Strange Hero's Bok-soo, Touch Your Heart and Marry Him If You Dare also play with their heroines' names Jin-shim (sincerity) and Mi-rae (future).

Occasionally, Dramabeans uses unconventional titles. @javabeans lamented ending up on the wrong side of history on Boys Before Flowers. Outside of Dramabeans, Descendants of the Sun is never called Descended From the Sun.

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Oh well Manhole was definitely the winner of the worst title (and also story). Even my idol bae Jaejung could not keep me watching the story..it was a huge mess.

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Or when a drama has too many English title, and sometimes each website uses it differently..

Mysterious Il Seung/Doubtful Victory/Oh The Mysterious

Most recent for me is Mr. Temporary/Class of Lies/Undercover Teacher

Like, why can't you stick to one title only? 😣

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I would have hit 'Like' but I'm not officially signed in.

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Yes! It makes googling difficult for us non-Korean folk. Even sometimes on DB people start using a title and I have no idea what they're talking about even though I'm watching the drama. If the production team would come up with ONE English title and then EVERYONE stick to it, life would be so much easier.

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Agree 😂

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I hate that! And then sometimes I can't remember which title is being used for a specific website and have to search it multiple ways. Like why?!😣

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I had great expectations for a drama called Big but we all know what happened to that.

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I almost didn't watch My Love From the Star due to the hoakey name, but You Who Came from the Stars was an excellent show. I have tried to learn not to trust the title. I even started Manhole, but only got three episodes in before dropping it like it had the pox or something.

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I only watched YWCFTS this year...and that was because Shin Sung Rok was in it 🤣. He was amazingly evil *twists nail ring*, unfortunately the overall drama was meh to me. Huhu.

I watched Manhole for unknown reasons and can't recall if I finished it. Imo, the male lead character might be the worst character to helm a kdrama ever.

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Ah, I really loved the show (stars for short). At first I found the female lead irritating but somewhat funny. I enjoyed the show even more the second time around and yes, SSR is one of my favorite actors, right up there with Uhm Ki-Joon and Namgoong Min. Isn't it funny that my favorite actors have a tendency to play bad guys?

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Haha, I've always thought You Who Came From the Stars was the better title as well, but no one seemed to use it so I got used to calling it My Love From Another Star. That was the second k-drama I watched, and I really loved it!

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But Manhole works though. Man fell into a manhole and make a mess of everyone's life, you'll feel like you in the manhole with him too the longer you watch it~ ha!

Rather than the title, I think teasers always mislead me. I generally just not really care about the title tbh. Some are weirdly worded but I just assume because it is a direct translation.

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But the full English title was Manhole: Feel Good! 😅😅😅

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seriously? omg
lmao

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I still can't stop lamenting the underwhelming title for both Life and Live. I know it's actually makes sense given their slice-of-life vibes. But the dramas are so much more than that, and I wish someone came up with something better or more intriguing to represent it.

Personally, title didn't really affect my choice to watch full-length dramas. But it's a differrent story for drmaa special. I've lost count how many times I decided to watch those 1-hour-long dramas based on the intriguing titles alone.

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Were drama specials My Friend is Still Alive and My Dad is a Nude Model two of the titles you found intriguing?

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Yep, alongside many others like Bride in Sneakers, Dancing the Waltz Alone, The Reason We Can't Sleep. I couldn't help but wonder why full-length dramas couldn't have equally interesting title.

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KBS drama specials have the most literal titles e.g., I'm Dying Soon, Came to Me and Became a Star. My favorite title is If We Were a Season.

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Ok, about this Live show. I think I've been pronouncing it wrong. Is it live as in "I'm going to live my life to the fullest."? I've been reading it as live as in "Yesterday, I saw BTS live in concert!" (not really).

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@kat23 snowy.owl,

Now that you mention it, I think it's the imperative form of the verb, not the adjective. Essentially, LIVE deals with the ways people manage to live and even flourish in the face of adversity. Just my $0.02. ;-)

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Ah, that makes sense. Thanks!

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Seriously.. Trying to google either Life or Live was a nightmare. Especially Live.

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@csmith CS,
I resorted to searching on "live kdrama" -- but now that I think of it, I could have added the broadcaster to really narrow it down. ;-)

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@pakalanapikake that's what I did, too. It got even more complicated when everyone was searching for the lost OST from Live. Try searching "Live OST kdrama" and you get a lot of people performing songs from various OST live. Hahaha! Nice but not quite what I was looking for. :)

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"Misty" (a direct hangul transliteration of the English word) was a pretty bad drama title for a pretty great drama. A title whose baffling significance to the show was only revealed in the last baffling minutes of the last baffling episode.
'Goblin' was also a very awkward title (I don't much like 'Guardian' either) they should have simply kept the Korean name? "The Great and Lonely Dokkaebi"

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I prefer Goblin to the English title Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. "Dokkaebi" means goblin in Korean. If we were to call Gong Yoo Dokkaebi, then do we call Lee Dong-wook Jeoseung Saja?

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@Mike,

For me, GOBLIN: THE LONELY AND GREAT GOD and GUARDIAN: THE LONELY AND GREAT GOD both work well because they convey his identity as a protector, along with his solitary, majestic nature. I ended up wishing I'd kept those variants in mind as I watched.

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One more post then I'll stop. Worst K-drama title change EVER was the 2015 "Fall in Love with Soon-jung" changed to "Beating Again". Good grief!

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Fall in Love with Soon-jung is another punny title. Actually, the drama title is Falling for Innocence because their heroine’s name Soon-jung means innocence in Korean.

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I liked 'Romance is a Bonus Book' though. It has a nice poetic ring to it, which captured the tone of the drama.

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I usually don't pay attention nor judge a drama by its title.

But I admit some of them can be intriguing .

And mostly, I do wonder how it'll be shorten or what the acronym we, Beanies, would use so I can understand which kdrama everyone is talking about . 😋

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Badly named drama titles can be insidious, though. You don't consciously think you're being turned off by a title but it might take you just a little longer than usual to check out 'Matrimonial Chaos'' or 'This week my wife is having an affair' to see if its good (which would be shortened to 'TWMYIHAA')

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Can we just mourn how on Netflix, 'This Week my Wife Will Have an Affair' was changed to 'Listen to Love'? 🙄

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Yes that's like removing the drama's entire context. But I agree with Bob, they most probably didn't want people to be put off by a title.

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I don't know about you, but I actually find Listen to Love extremely outputting. It's so ambiguous a title, there's nothing to distinguish it from a standard romcom.

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well i'm guessing it's agreed upon by collaborators. it's interesting because i've always knwn JBL as JBL as opposed to rain or shine. i think the dramas that try to be esoteric make the titles so in english. like rain or shine makes sense to me after seeing it.

you're right about titling and work. i know that titles for my films have been really important and it can shake people off but if it's a good piece of work, we can forgive.

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I like to say the Korean title for Bridal Mask . . ."Gakshital!

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Personaly, I like the title Something in the Rain because even if it doesn't explain the topic anymore, a lot of important romantic scenes were taking place in the rain. Their red, green and finaly yellow umbrellas made their scenes very beautiful.

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The English title should have been Sometimes It's Hard to be a Woman.

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Korean culture sucks for women ?

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No, because a 1969 Tammy Wynette country song was almost as odd a choice for that series theme music as the Bruce Willis song they used.

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But in Korea it's harder than some other places :p

Personaly, I liked all the songs in this drama.

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I remember recommending Age of Youth (literal title) to my friends only to have them not watch it because they can't find it on Netflix. Turns out its title on the streaming platform is Hello, My Twenties! (English title)

Why can't English titles stick to the Korean title and translate it from there? Korean titles are much more creative than the translations in my opinion.

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"Let's Hold Hands Tightly And Watch The Sunset" LOL

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Haha, I forgot about that one! 😂

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Cheese in the trap was Park HaeJin awesome acting skills,too bad the second lead was a irritating bum!

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I laughed when Netflix changed the title of 'Heirs' to 'Inheritors'

The only good reason for this I could come up with was that they were trying to con us into thinking it was a different show and we'd watch it by mistake.

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As much as I remember inheritors was the second title of Heirs. There were many titles floating around and this was one of them so Netflix probably picked one of those.

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Titles do play a crucial role at times. I know I missed few kdramas in the past few years and that is why from time to time I go over a list that contains kdrama titles and from that I choose those I find interesting from the title alone, some titles speak to me, grab my attention, some just don't. Depending on titles alone is not very smart move though, because there are so many great dramas out there with not-so-good titles, unfortunately.

Healer - the title is cool but that's because I know it's the lead's code name, otherwise it's seems a generic title with little impact.

Hundred Million Stars from the Sky - it sounds really good but I couldn't figure out what's with the title and why.

My Wife is Having an Affair this Week - pretty accurate and straightforward.

Drinking Solo - love the title and the show.

The Third Charm - not sure if the title is misleading or it's just me being bitter.

Because This is My First Life - this is my favorite of all the titles out there. It's simple yet so meaningful I just love it.

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That is why I completely dislike Netflix's choice of changing names. Not only does it make it difficult to find the show but also removes some of its context. Listening to love in no way suits This week my wife will have an affair specifically because they even used the title line in different ways for first few episodes and it gave that so much gravitas.

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Unbelievable. I'm not a Netflix user so I'm not aware of the other title but seriously why change if the title is perfect enough?

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To be honest the title translation happens in every language and most of the time it is just a disaster. I was always wondering wht k/j/c-dramas always have an English title.
I recently watched Moonshine & Valentine (Chinese: 结爱·千岁大人的初恋), also known as The Love Knot: His Excellency's First Love. I scratched my head a lot wondering why those 2 English titles were so different.

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When I first watched Romantic doctor, teacher kim, after watching 4 episodes I felt where is the romantic doctor you promised SBS 🥴...
Another 2 episodes and then I realised the appropriate title should have been Idealist doctor teacher kim. Phew! Taught me to check out the hangul title thoroughly before judging

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Maybe it had to do with the old meaning of romantic when it came to literature? I don't know I'm just making stuff up. 😅

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Yes that must be it!
But the drama is popular among my non-kdrama watching friends purely due to the title 😁

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Haha maybe, or it was just a way to reel us in. I mean I remember the teasers for the drama was the one with Seo Hyun Jin and Yoo Yeon Suk about to kiss. 😜🤭

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I don't think anyone has mentioned Shut Up Flower Boy Band yet. The title makes it sound like some teenybopper show, but it's actually really well done. Though, honestly, I don't think I would change it if I could. I've become kind of attached to some of these amusing titles. They're fun to make fun of.

Also, why is the wind always blowing in melodramas? The Wind Blows, That Winter, the Wind Blows....

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What is the drama in the 7th picture, where he is drinking a soda?

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Just Between Lovers ❤️

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great article...i always wondered about the titles in the kdramas but never really thought about this way, i will definitely pay more attention going forward.

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I almost didn't watch Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo because I thought the title sounded stupid and silly. Wow! I'm glad I was reading blogs that praised it, so that I was willing to give it a try. I love that little show and would hate to miss out because of a silly title!

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Interesting article !

I used to make a list on paper of what drama i was watching, how many episodes i had watched yet, etc... A bit like mydramalist for someone who don't use internet much. I used to bring it everywhere with me, but I was feeling ashamed whenever people who didn't know anything about kdrama would see all the cringy titles... There's a lot of good ones, and you mentionned some of them, but i usually find kdrama english titles cringy, sometimes even for shows that are not that cringy themselves. The worse is those app, that automatically translate the titles in my own language... I mean we don't use those kind of cringy titles in my country. And as you said, some good titles loose their wordplay with translation.

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Has anyone mentioned 'Dr. Romantic' AKA 'Doctor Romantic, Teacher Kim' on here? That one really threw me off. I thought it was some cheesy story about a relationship coach or something. I've never been more pleasantly surprised!

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