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Subtitles: Barrier or gateway?


Parasite

What with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite making Oscar history and all, there’s been a lot of talk about subtitles in the press of late. It seems translated words on the screen are causing quite the fuss — and what better place to talk about it than here, where many (if not most) of us are all too familiar with relying on subtitles. In fact, you don’t know how cozy you are with subtitles until you watch something in your native tongue… and you can’t seem to function. I’d even wager that being without subtitles when you’re used to them is just as unsettling as it is for those who’ve never watched anything with them.

Each of us has a different comfort level with subtitles — for me, I love them, and I don’t think I’ve ever even had subtitle phobia. I’ve long enjoyed cinema from other countries, and whether I was studying early filmmaking in Soviet Russia, or falling in love with sumptuous Bollywood films, subtitles were my friend. They never presented a problem.


Bong Joon-ho

For many, though, they do. Bong Joon-ho, in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, now famously said all we have to do is “overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles” to be introduced to a whole new world. In this sense, subtitles can be a gateway to a new dimension — and that’s exactly what it was like for me and K-dramas.

Is everyone willing to overcome that one-inch barrier, though? For some, the answer is no. Some folks aren’t remotely interested in “reading” while they watch; for others, the fact that something isn’t in their native language makes it immediately unappealing or unworthy. Just the other day someone in the media was talking about Parasite and referred to it as “the subtitled movie,” which seems a pretty sorry distinction to me.

On the other hand, many people are warming up to subtitles lately, and it seems that Parasite will only continue this trend, and the interest in foreign media. Throw in a little bit of BTS’s huge success in the U.S., and you have a lot more open-mindedness around music, cinema, and TV from around the world. And that’s a good thing!


Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju

Being willing to read subtitles while we watch something can open up a whole new world — but what are the downsides, if any? Consuming media via subtitles is certainly a different experience than consuming something in your native tongue — there is no denying that.

One drawback is that when you’re listening to a language you don’t understand while reading a line-by-line translation, a few important things can be missed: inflection, intonation, and nuance. These are essential parts of language and communication broadly, and we often forget how much we rely on them as we decode and process language. When we read subtitles, it’s true we don’t have that advantage. We can tell things like volume and speed, for sure. And because Korean is an emphatic and vibrant language, and it’s relatively easy to decode the basic emotions conveyed in communication — however, subtleties are indeed missed. But here’s the good news: that improves.

At least in my own case, when I look back on my (almost) decade of drama watching, I’m amazed how much I have learned about the Korean language. Not only the words themselves, but the use of honorifics, what satoori sounds like, and in short, I’m now able to pick up on a lot of the nuance and inflection I used to miss out on as a subtitle reader.

Legend of the Blue Sea

Outside of years of immersion in another language, what else makes watching subtitled media a successful (and dare I say awesome) experience? Of course, it’s translation. Even more than the one-inch barrier on the screen, the translation is where the real magic lies.

A drama’s translation has a huge impact on how we experience the story, especially since it’s not only the translated words and dialogue we rely on, but also the unique cultural elements and nuances that must be expressed. Often, that’s not as simple as doing a word-for-word dictionary translation. What’s interesting is that over the years I’ve noticed a huge improvement in the quality of translations. Sometimes they’re even so good that they almost lose their Korean-ness and become more “American” than I’m comfortable with.


Man to Man

But what good translation needs is balance, right? On one hand there are translations that are so literal they’re confusing, nonsensical, and sometimes even off-putting. This was mostly many years ago, when dialogue was practically transliterated word for word. For instance, a wonderful phrase like “Jal meokgesseumnida,” rather than being unpacked for what it means and signifies, was translated quite literally as “I will eat it well.” The phrase, as I’m sure everyone knows, is more about expressing thankfulness before eating a meal — and I certainly didn’t get the fullness of that expression from “I will eat it well.” Though it does have a ring to it.

On the other hand, opposite these more literal translations are the ones that push the envelope. They translate the original language, but they also make the content and language current and relevant, almost to a fault. These harder translations turn a simple “Aish!” into a strong expletive, and sometimes, at least to me, a lot of nuance is lost in trying to make something sound like America in 2020 when it’s clearly not.


Boys Before Flowers

Chances are if you’re reading an article on Dramabeans, you’re not intimidated by subtitles. You might even be one of those people that now puts subtitles on in your native language, because it’s become impossible not to read while you’re watching (guilty!). But beyond the many ways that subtitles influence how we consume media, there’s the bigger picture, and that’s around discovery and broadening our horizons. Rather than be locked into the media created by our own culture or country, exploring other media is exciting, educational — and maybe even a little liberating.

As we’ve seen, there’s a lot more to subtitles than waiting for them to be magically uploaded and accurately timed to onscreen dialogue. It’s a rather delicate transaction between languages and cultures — and it provides an interesting look at how we perceive and receive language.

While the conversation around subtitles and translations is a complex one, I’m glad it’s happening. Rather than act as a barrier, subtitles can be a gateway to new experiences, perspectives, cultures — and of course, wonderful storytelling traditions.


Crash Landing on You

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I grew up with subtitles, both on TV and in the movies. Watching anything without subtitles just feels strange. I have picked up many expressions in different languages. Bring the subtitles on!

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My son always has the, closed caption feature activated on his TV. He's done this since his children were very small. I think he originally did it so he could tell what was being said amid the din of raising three kids. I noticed one time when I visited them, that their pre-school children were always very good readers, and I suspect that part of that is the closed captions they saw on the TV at all times.

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Kocowa is guilty of over-Americanizing the translation. I don't understand it because they are a Korean company.

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and Netflix is a culprit of adding the F-bomb in the translations any chance they get lol

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The best was in Vagabond when Seunggi yelled "Ah!", which by the way doesn't even need translation, and Netflix translated it "[email protected]%#".
*facepalm*

It was just that one translator who did the even episodes, the odd episodes were fine.

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Adding in place of Hong Gil Dong the Doctor Strange :< and so on

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Yes they do that too very uselessly.

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"Aigo" does not equal "F-bomb."

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I know, it's so ridiculous.

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I wonder if the subs differ by region? I dont remember seeing much F or other curses. Or maybe i didn’t pay much attention, must check this out when i watch later.

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It depends on the drama

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I know beanies loved DramaFever, but they were guilty of this too. Viki has hands down the best subtitles proving fansubs will always be superior to professional translations.

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I agree with you as to the superiority of Viki's volunteers. As frustrating as it is to wait for the subtitles- sometimes for days- It makes a big difference that the who are translating understand the context and nuances of the original words- and they know when NOT to translate: Oppa and Unni STAY Oppa and Unni. Aigoo stays Aigoo- and sometimes they even leave Daebak! alone.

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Besides those, please leave titles as is: President-nim, Chairman-nim, Team Manager-nim, Director-nim. Not Mr. Lee What's Wrong With Secretary Kim, Ms. Yoon Crash Landing on You.

In addition, I prefer the Korean order (e.g., Im Writer, Son Director Be Melodramatic), which is unfortunately flipped when translated to English.

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Yes! and I've seen them even note down references to dramas/movies/songs if a drama ever references them

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adding on to this, it helps that i've been a drama watcher for a while now so i'm able to understand the puns/jokes and meaning in context which i'm sure i missed out on with the dramas i watched when i first started

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I love when the translators leave titles as they are. I do understand why they use names instead of Oppa and Unnie though. I'm sure for beginning drama watchers it can be confusing.

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oh the meaning of oppa is totally lost when they use the names - esp in terms of dating 😅

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Yes, they were. That was its only downfall. Their app was user friendly and the episodes weren't released without subs.

Oh how I miss them.

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Viki easily has the best subtitles, they take time but only to produce a better quality. Wich is why I am a little conflicted when using viki because they don't pay these people who clearly are the best at their job. I think Viu comes a close second (I have not used viu myself but I have seen dramas on other sites which were only subbed on viu so I knew it's their subs).

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WITH S2 used to take weeks before we could download the subs. They were the best back in the days. I learnt a lot especially from MrX's subs even if I had to use a dictionary lol.

I also love viki. Dedicated fans of K-dramas subbing for the fans. That's how I feel when watching a drama subbed by viki volunteers.
Before the likes of Queen Seon-deok (2009), subs also took a while.

I haven't found any subs that I like better so I hope viki will be around for a long time.

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Viki does a great job, but They will get my money again when they start paying their translators and making the subs available the same day.

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Kocowa is actually a joint venture of the 3 largest Korean networks- and that sort of 'too many chefs in the kitchen' situation may explain what is happening with the subtitles.

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Yes, it is a joint venture but only one management team. Someone in the translation dept should know better. Like who decides the audience wants everything to read like an American show? Shouldn't Kocowa want to preserve Korean culture? Ugh, it's so frustrating.

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Yup! Netflix does it too😒

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I think most of the translators are guilty. I'm amazed how a simple "yes" can become "yes absolutely." However, translation is all done from an individual's POV. One person will translate the same phrase differently from an other.

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One should also mention and congratulate Sharon Choi for her wonderful live translations throughout the awards season for Parasite.

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I'm one of her many fans since Cannes. Sharon and Bong have been the dynamic duo during every "Parasite" interviews, award shows and film festivals.
I can't love one without the other. They were so good together!

This acceptance speech was my favorite. So endearing and more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftz-BPqCiZU

The K-drama fan in me:
Quentin Hung-nim - Yay
"Our" great Martin Scorsese - Yay
I will drink until next morning - Yay

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Shout out to Darcy Paquet who did the English translation for "Parasite.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p47NHLHHGJM

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I'm not a fan of Parasite translating KakaoTalk "KaTalk" as "WhatsApp."

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Could it be to avoid advertising for KakaoTalk?

I don't think there is anything in "Parasite that is unintentional even the Seoul National University is being translated to Oxford on purpose.

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Isn't the intention to Americanize it? Because Americans have never heard of KakaoTalk and SKY universities.

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There are other English speaking countries beside America. I think Oxford was a good change.

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Like dramas, I like all my translations word-for-word.

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The problem with subtitles for any country is so much is lost in translation. Especially puns, jokes and vernacular catch phrases can never be translated accurately.

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It’s not subtitles but I always think the translators of the Asterix comics from French to English do an amazing job, those things are basically wall to wall word jokes.

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Ah yes Asterix. Those are fun.

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So true. I am constantly amazed by Asterix in English. I end up walking up and down my house going, "How? how? howwww?

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Cultural nuances too. That's how languages are, something will be lost in translation.

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One of the most annoying is food. The way they translate names of food is very confusing.

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Not everything can be translated perfectly but surely subs is better than being limited to enjoying just the language you know, which for most is probably only two max.

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My biggest problem with subtitles at the moment is on Netflix - if characters start speaking English they drop the subtitles, but I have my subtitle reading brain on so it takes me a moment to catch up...often there’s a strong accent too, and it’s only a few lines, can’t they just subtitle it all?

I always like when I get to know the language well enough to know the subtitler hasn’t actually done a direct translation but rather translated the idiom, or if I pick up a word joke from the original language without the subtitler explaining it.

I can see why some people don’t like subtitle though - you do need to be a fluent reader. My brother is dyslexic and it just wouldn’t be fun for him.

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I have noticed, at least those shows I have watched, that some countries seem to have much better subtitles than others. Korea and Taiwan are pretty good - mainland China and Japan not so much. Most European are pretty good.

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Netflix makes me so mad with that. 90% of the time the accent is to strong to understand what is being said.

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Another thing is with, "My Holo Love," Netflix is mixing comments about the music, and sounds, in with the subtitles--this makes my train of thought choppy. I'd rather they have the option of turning on or off, closed captions for the hearing impaired. This seems to be the first time I've noticed this.

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They have both "English" and "English [CC]" options

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I'll have to look for that option, because I watch a lot of Kdramas on Netflix, and this is the first time I've noticed the descriptions of sounds.

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I've only noticed it for My Holo Love so far! But again, if you have just English on (without the CC) it should fix that

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I found out how to take closed captions off, but "My Holo Love," is the only Kdrama I've watched that has options for 'English closed captions,' or just 'English.' It seemed that 'English closed captions,' was the default for "My Holo Love."

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Subtitles have always been around for me and even before I started watching K-dramas, I was watching my country's Chinese dramas with English subtitles to understand them better.

So subtitles have never been an issue for me and in fact I enjoy having them because now it just feels weird not to have them there.

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I always have subtitles on now, even if I don't need them.

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My father has problems hearing and so I was in the habit of doing it from when I was young. It might be why I so easily adapted to content in other languages because reading subtitles was no big deal anyway. And I do it for everything now as well.

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I turn subtitles on when watching some British, Irish, and Scottish programs, and I'm a native English speaker.

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I think I might need subtitles more for Scottish programs than I do for Korean programs. I started using subtitles regularly when BBC became available through our cable service, and the Scottish shows were indecipherable at times. I've been using them for almost everything since.

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An award winning Welsh film several years ago was famously aired in Australia with English subtitles. We were simultaneously amused and extremely grateful.

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I've watched several Australian TV shows on PBS, and I never need subtitles for them.

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Personally, subtitles is a wonderful discovery. My first experience with foreign serial TV was a dubbed one. It was very disconcerting to hear something that didn't match what the actors saying at all. So when I found out about subtitles, I was very happy. (And it's also forced me to learn English, which is quite a fun 'education') It's nice to listen to them speaking in their own language while still being able to understand what they're talking about.

As for the type of translation, my only problem is when they tried to "americanized" it too much that it doesn't resemble the original phrases at all. I'm even a bit disappointed nowadays when I read a Chinese novel that isn't being translated in the usual "flowery English". Somehow, it just doesn't feel the same.

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I agree, I definitely prefer original language and subtitles to dubbed.

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When I was young, on Saturday mornings, there was Kung Fu Theater on tv where historical Chinese fight movies were shown. Part of the fun was seeing the actors mouths and words not match. Now I can't stand it. Lol.

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I totally detest dubbed shows. Perhaps it is a hangover from those really totally awful kung-fu movie dubs out of HK and China. But even now it is obvious in some that the lip sync is way off.

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Lol, I just commented on this.

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I even refuse to watch anime dubbed. I must hear the original voice actors (e.g., Kimura Takuya in Howl's Moving Castle).

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kimura takuya is the ONLY reason for watching Howl's Moving Castle in my book...

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HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is a great move- and I would never want to watch it dubbed. Subtitled is the way to go. Hayao Miyazaki is a genius- in our house we have at least 6 of his films on DVD. Perhaps you would have preferred watching PRINCESS MONONOKE?

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we are a hayao miyazaki fan family! we even went to the studio ghibli museum in tokyo... want to go to the amusement themed park when we go back to japan...

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Christian Bale just doesn't cut it.

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Some are definitely better subbed but I don't mind dubbed in anime for the most part. That way I can multitask.

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In Hayao Miyazaki's "whisper of the heart" the scene where Shizuku Tsukishima repeats over and over her frustration (and hatred) of the rude boy. The dubbed actress isn't anywhere as good as the original Japanese.

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#subnotdub. Always.

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Back in the day, they used to dub k-dramas into Mandarin which was horrible (the mistiming + weird dubbing sound) so I never watched even tho it was hard to find dramas online. But there’s merit to both methods, dubbing would work for ppl with reading disabilities like a Beanie mentioned above.

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Interesting read. English is my second language. I grew up watching American TV series subtitled in my first language, so I'm very used to watching TV/Movies with subtitles. Over the years, my English improves a lot and now I can understand most of the English-speaking TV/Movies without subtitles, but I know that sometimes I miss some jokes, puns or cultural references here and there. I also studied translation in college. Though I ended up not working in that field, I'm pretty sure that filling in the cultural gaps between the source language and the target language is always the biggest challenge for translators. I always appreciate well-translated subtitles and I think many translators out there did amazing jobs.

I started watching Korean dramas regularly like 10 years ago, and I gradually learnt so much about Korean language, culture and customs through the dramas and the articles here in dramabeans. It has been a very interesting journey and I would say that for me, subtitles is always a gateway to a bigger world.

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The only real problem I have seen with subtitles is that every language has a few words that there is no equivalent for. Example would be Aegyo in Korean and Burikko (ぶりっ子) in Japanese. I am sure that English and other languages have similar words with no direct translation. So I suspect that subtitles often cheat and not render the exact meaning.

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You are right in saying that there are always a few words that really do not translate. The smart thing to do with a word like aegyo is to leave them untranslated but still part of the subtitles. The audience will eventually learn the word from context. After many years I have a fairly good idea what aegyo means- but do not ask me to explain it because it would take quite a while- and you still would not understand it as well as you would by learning it the way I have.

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Your Name's "watashi, boku, ore" scene is untranslatable. You must have some knowledge of Japanese to understand this dialogue.

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I was just thinking about this, as I've been watching a lot of variety shows lately and I prefer to turn off the subtitles because they cover the captions. The captions are half of what's funny in Korean variety shows, and the language used in variety shows is usually less technical than in dramas.

But I always turn on subtitles, and have ever since it was made available, on English-speaking shows. I have some weird issue where when people speak, there's a slight delay in my brain in understanding what was said. Reading for me is much faster. Interestingly, I don't have this issue listening to Korean. It's just that I don't understand some Korean vocabulary that I have to turn on subtitles.

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I believe that there are actually studies which show that we can read faster than we can listen (which is hearing plus comprehension)

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but what bothers me is when they are speaking english and my eyes are trained to look at the subtitles... and ALSO a friend of mine has close-captions on constantly because her hearing is limited - and i find myself unable to move my eyes away from the captioning even tho they are speaking english....
: [

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When people come 9ver they always ask me why I have the subtitles on. 😆😆😆

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Hobby: (me) reading......... subtitles 🤭

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Oh, brilliant!

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Hobby: (me) learning languages......... by watching television

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Almost every show or movie I watch I use subtitles or captions, so I am pretty much used to it. I have trouble hearing in a narrow frequency range (due to hearing damage in the military), which happens to be partly in the range of human voices. Some voices, especially men's are sometimes hard to understand.

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Excellent and relevant topic @missvictrix!
I was nodding along in agreement especially here:
"They translate the original language, but they also make the content and language current and relevant, almost to a fault. These harder translations turn a simple “Aish!” into a strong expletive, and sometimes, at least to me, a lot of nuance is lost in trying to make something sound like America in 2020 when it’s clearly not."

If I wanted to watch an American contemporary show, I would.

I am looking at you, Netflix. Ahem.

It is truly mystifying that anyone has a problem with subtitles for me because I have grown up outside my native country and that was my norm. I feel so sad for those who miss the opportunity because subtitles are a barrier for them. They have no idea what they are missing!

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they almost lose their Korean-ness and become more “American”

This is my pet peeve. I hate when translators take liberties with subtitles. I want everything translated word-for-word (e.g., "잘 먹겠습니다." = "I will eat it well.") If a character calls the male lead "oppa," then the subtitle needs to read "oppa," not his name. I hate when they translate honorifics as "sir" (e.g. Itaewon Class: "모릅니다" ≠ "I can't, sir."). Park Seo-joon did not call that wretched man "sir."

In Crash Landing on You's bawl-inducing goodbye, the actual dialogue made the scene even sadder. Hyun Bin: "뛰지 말라고!" = "I said, 'Don't run'!" ≠ "Stop running!" Son Ye-jin: "사랑해." = "I love you." ≠ "I really do."

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To be fair there is no way to translate honorifics.

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For that, I wish translators would still add little notes at the top explaining with the words mean to newcomers. No one does that anymore! We're all familiar with them because we learned the long way, but if Netflix brings new fans, they should really be trying to explain Korean culture to them. Netflix subs are just confusing.

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If they would add footnotes that would be great.

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I was so impressed when I watch some and they add notes to explain jokes and wordplay.

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Wordplay is definitely one that tends to go explained! The apple/apology joke, for instance.

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(e.g. Itaewon Class: "모릅니다" ≠ "I can't, sir."). Park Seo-joon did not call that wretched man "sir."

😂😂😂
That man deserves no respect from our upright SaeRoYi!

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I agree with you, panshel, the "oppa" thing is one of my pet peeves.

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It took me such a long time to work out what was going on when the subtitles had a name but I didn’t hear it - because it wasn’t there and they’d said “oppa” or whatever else.... it’s so annoying!

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Agree word by word! And to put it simple, let's use the famous "what if"... what if we wouldn't have subs at all?
Well, to start off, none of us would be here. But also, our lives in general wouldn't be as richer and broader as they are.
One of my literature teachers said to us in class: "we are the books we have read, but we are also the books we haven't read"... sometimes the same happens with a drama, and if the drama is so bad that you can only get together to trash it out (Abyss, Melty and recently Forest 😂, to give you few examples), still we have fun talking about it.
So, yeah, subs are our friends, and they keep your mind working while so many others would say you're wasting your time with "tv" (I honestly can't think of k-dramas as tv-whatever, although I know they are, but anyway... 😒)

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I’m also one who grew up with subs for things I watched, even when the content was in my mother tongue.
I remember when watching the HK Cantonese dramas from HK’s biggest network, TVB, the drama came with subs that were yellow in colour with black outlining, and has since moved onto being white-with-black outlining for the last, I’d say, 10-15 or so years.
I also grew up watching Americanized anime—mostly “Sailor Moon” and “Cardcaptor Sakura” or Chinese donghua, like Doraemon—where it was dubbed, and it wasn’t until I reached high school and joined my high school’s anime club was I finally enlightened to the original language of what anime should be: Japanese. Ever since then, I have watched all of my anime—even re-watching the things I grew up with— all in its original language and have continued on my road of subtitles. It’s been 10 years since high school, and I’m still on the road on reading subs and watching my anime in original Japanese 😁😁 The only exception I will— and have— make (made) is that I will re-watch Studio Ghibli’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” in Christian Bale’s dub once in a while, because I actually think that one is done right, and Christian Bale’s voice is also 🥰🥰🥰🥰😘😘😘🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻👌🏻👌🏻👌🏻

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The only anime I watch dubbed instead of subbed is Full Metal Alchemist. All others I watch subbed.

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Yea, I can’t go back to watching anime being dubbed anymore lol Except “Howl’s Moving Castle” 😅😅

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I agree with you Missvictrix, and thankyou for this piece.

Subtitles are wonderful- if the translator understands both languages well. Happily this has usually been the case for me. There was one exception- I used to bring home DVDs from the library to share with my wife shows that I had enjoyed on the late and much lamented Dramafever. Most were OK. The exception were those which came from Koala Lumpur- they were almost excruciating.

Happily, I no longer have to roll the dice with library DVDs- now that I have my Roku stick. My wife is now thoroughly familiar with Viki and OnDemand Korea.

Watching Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean shows has been enlightening and even liberating. Thank goodness for subtitles- and may boundless blessings flow to those who make them.

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Wait.. do you mean you get subbed korean dvds from Kuala Lumpur?

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More accurately our library does. I do not know the name of the company.

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The worst subtitles of a Korean drama I've found was an Indonesian copy of "City Hunter." Wow! What a mess.

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The 2018 drama Risky Romance was made enjoyable solely by its awful subs. They were so bad, it was so funny.

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I suffered thru bad subs for Top Star Yoo Baek. The drama itself was fun, but maybe it was made more fun trying to decipher the subs 😂

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And where do you find Kuala Lumpur? In Indonesia. Congratulations- they were likely made by the company that I was talking about. 'What a mess' is exactly right.

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Hmm i wonder why my comment above is in moderation? DB has weird triggers.

Anyway @oldawyer KL is in Malaysia, a neighbouring country.

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Ooops! I misspoke. It is a Malaysian DVD, put out by PMP. I bought it a long time ago--it was the only place I could find "City Hunter," with English subtitles. Anyway PMP does terrible subtitles.

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So it really could be from the same company- and, as Parkchuna correctly noted, KL is actually in Malaysia.

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oh, must mention here is that some movie critic suggested that everyone watch Parasite twice, because the first time you are reading the subs -- so one should watch it again to be able to appreciate the sound editing, music scoring, watching the expressions, hearing/appreciating the nuances of the spoken lines, etc.

let's all rewatch the movie!!
: )

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I don't think so, I got it all the first time.

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The first time I enjoyed the movie was in 2007 when I first watched the Indian movie Krrish, that was the first time I watched a movie with subtitles and I liked it so much.
Ever since, I am a sucker for subs and they've helped me enjoy all kinds of movies. I personally think subbed movies are better than dubbed.

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Dramabeans was --and still is-- an integral part of me learning about and understanding the nuances and cultural significance within dramas.

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Long long ago and far far away (well, Taiwan in the 1970s) the Chinese language dramas were subbed in Chinese, I guess for the benefit of speakers of other dialects.

I thought that was a great language-learning tool. If I didn't understand something I would scribble it down and look it up during the commercials.

Nowadays if I watch something in Chinese with English subs I end up wishing it had Chinese subs too.

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Thank you for an interesting piece @missvictrix! This is indeed very refreshing that we have a chance to talk about something that seems trivial because it happens all the time in our daily life i.e. subtitled shows, and analyze it from different perspectives.

I love learning other languages especially languages with Germanic root (e.g. English, Norwegian, German.) And for as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to watch English-speaking shows that have English subtitles. To me, it would have helped foreign language learners like me a great deal if we can watch those shows with the same language subtitles. Then, we'll be able to know how different structures are used, how they really sound like when they communicate in those languages in real life.

In my country, English is a foreign language. This means that people normally don't have a chance at knowing how English really functions in other English-speaking countries. The average English proficiency of people is quite low. Thus, it was common even years ago that main TV channels provide English language-dubbed movies instead of subtitled. However, it's better nowadays that people are becoming better at using English, so there are chances that you can watch those movies with subtitles in our own native language. I regard this as a huge improvement in terms of English language education, and will forever hope that these shows' subtitles can be made English in the near future.

And yes, I am also the one who turns on English subtitles even when I am watching shows in my first language on Netflix. In a country where English is a foreign language, I think people should try to get themselves immersed in English as much as possible, and that's what I have been telling my students.

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I live in a country in which everything is translated: movies, tv series, anything. Finding subtitles was really the exception until a few years ago. In fact, in cinemas ALL movies are dubbed. No big deal for me.
When I was a teenager I had to buy my Speak Up magazine because it brought one a month a movie in original version with subs in English. I would go through the movie again and again, listening, writing down and reading the subs.
For me, personally, I always watch things in the original version with subs. Even if there is the option of being in Spanish. Now it feels weird to listen to things if not in the original language.
For instance, My Holo Love is available in Netflix in Spanish. I tried to watch it dubbed and I couldn't. It jus wasn't a Kdrama, it was something different.

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Same experience for me. Growing up in a non-English country, all the foreign movies (which include American ones) were dubbed. It was only years later, and after I came to the US that I realized well known US actors /actresses had a different voice... Duh!

We also now prefer to watch any shows in it's original language. And we turn on the close caption all the time.

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Recently rewatched Secret Garden in Netflix and Ha Ji Won calling Oska as Oppa was translated to Oskie, the whole nuance and essence was lost.

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I used to hate subs before watching korean dramas, but i have grown so fond of it, that without subs i feel like something is missing now when i watch any show.

There are some instances i feel like subtitles take a more deeper meaning of what the actual dialogue is in simple terms is and it makes me a bit feel detached from the story and characters. Recently it happened to me while watching an episode from 'Forest' k-drama. I swear some simple lines said by male character was translated to totally different meaning and i was confused as hell. That episode made me feel like i watched a completely different show.

So I believe good subtitles isn't a barrier. It makes you even more engaged in the show. I even love when the lyrics are translated in Korean dramas.

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Forgot to say that I still don't recognize accents unless it is exaggerated. I am really bad at that.

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Me neither. I'm very bad with accents.

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I've found that through the years of watching kdramas I have come to understand Korean to the point where I can understand most simple dialogue without subtitles, and often recognize mistakes in the translation. However, take the subtitles away entirely and I'm lost. They're such an integral part of the viewing experience sometimes I forget they're even there.

I have always used subtitles even for English shows, because although it is my native language, I grew up in Japan with a Japanese mother. So while I identify with English as my primary language, I did not grow up hearing it as much so my hearing comprehension of English is not as good as Japanese. Japanese shows are the only ones I am comfortable watching without subtitles, and in fact find subtitles annoying.

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@missvictrix Thank you for this interesting piece. As a lover of languages with a master’s degree in translation I am naturally very passionate about the sub vs dub debate. Over here we mainly get American/British content with subs. Only Disney and other family content gets dubbed. Many of my peers and I learned English through subtitles rather than in high school. We found our way to even more American/British content online, with English subs if you got lucky. As a result subtitles and book translations in my native language feel fake and cringy to read now, even when their quality is excellent, simply because I am wired to read (and write) everything in English.

“There’s a lot more to subtitles than waiting for them to be magically uploaded and accurately timed to onscreen dialogue. It’s a rather delicate transaction between languages and cultures” I was obligated to pass a course on subtitling during my master program and I can confirm this. Translating from source language (let’s use Korean here) to target language (f.ex. English) in itself is a difficult task, as mentioned above. Subtitling, from the way I remember it (feel free to correct me if my approach is ancient by now!) starts with transcribing the Korean you hear if there is no original script available on the left side of the page and then creating a translation in English in the middle. The right side is reserved for creating subtitles.

Knowing what is said in Korean and knowing how to explain it in English is not enough. This is where the timing comes into play. I was horrible at this because it is hard to time accurately. The employer or broadcaster tells you how fast their audience can read (X characters per second) and off you go. So your excellent English translation does not amount to much if you cannot convey (X multiplied by Y) characters in (Y) seconds, and there is a limit to the amount of seconds you can use. You are translating twice or more in a way, because you keep tweaking the translation to fit in timing. Also there is the timing technology that kept altering or deleting your hard work whenever you dared to open it in another similar software or on another computer.

Annoying whenever subtitles appear and disappear in the blink of an eye or appear at the wrong moment, right? I admit guilt, but it is not always the translator’s fault. Sometimes a character talks fast or says little, but it translates to a long speech that has to be conveyed in a few subtitles in the same time span. All in all fun (but difficult) to do, until your grade and career depends on it. I have decided not to pursue translation for a career because courses such as these took the fun out of learning languages. Basically, I am not surprised some comments talk about volunteers being better at subtitling than the professionals.

To conclude on another matter, subtitles can be a barrier as well. My mother used to rapidly read subtitles, until she got diagnosed with a rare eye disease...

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*To conclude on another matter, subtitles can be a barrier as well. My mother used to rapidly read subtitles, until she got diagnosed with a rare eye disease. Her English has improved out of necessity, because she has to listen to what is being said to know what is happening on screen. However, when it is not said in our native tongue (or English), my mother can no longer understand anything. So we should be careful not to assume everyone is too lazy and ignorant to get over the barrier. For this reason I am glad nobody on Dramabeans is pointing fingers at people who have difficulties with subtitles.

Woops, my comment was too long.

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Guess I'm in the minority where I think that translations should be as faithful to the translated *into* language as possible. If by virtue of watching enough dramas you pick up the minutiae or even the language itself and you feel that the subs are not accurate enough anymore that's a good thing for you, but imo it provides a very large barrier of entry to people not familiar with the language.

Subtitles are supposed to help understanding for people who do not speak the language or are necessarily familiar with the culture. Leaving words untranslated (oppa etc) can really tear someone out of their enjoyment and make them miss other things because their eye is caught on that one unfamiliar word and they cant catch what is happening on screen. Since subtitles inevitably draw attention away from the acting having the language be as simple and accurate as possible makes it easier for people who can just read the text and then see the acting in the scene itself.

Second of all I am very against what viki likes to do, which is extremely long lines of dialogue, sometimes even two lines of text presented over the whole screen. That is just too much. Add to that that they sometimes also add Translation notes and I just feel like they want to overexplain.

Translating very much hinges on personal preferences too, or what you understand the meaning of a text to be, which can clash with what other people understand a line to mean.

One aspect I think that is sometimes not given enough thought wrt subtitles is the fact that for visually impaired people they can provide an insurmountable barrier. People with dyslexia might also have a hard time with subtitles, which is another reason that unfamiliar words might not work as well.

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Some words just don't have adequate English equivalents. English has few honorifics so its difficult to translate the commonly used terms sunbae and hoobae for example. When the captioner tries to translate the result is often clunky. My 'Superior' and 'underling'? That hardly conveys the proper meaning. Viki will often include a long explanation in parentheses for a single word they just can't find an accurate translation of.

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Yes, but that's when you would just use the name in english and imo that's fine. Or in the case of a superior, maybe Mr. [name] or President [name]. The long explanation doesn't always enhance a subtitle in my view.

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Then we get into the issue of putting the family name first or last. Park Bo-gum or Bogum Park? I hear this is another one of those vexing 'Why is Netflix doing this?' translation issue. Americanizing the text to death.

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Oh how I hate when Netflux Americanizes names.

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These terms are not just titles, they have a meaning in the relationship the characters have. For example, in Que Sera Sera, the FL called the ML ahjussi and he doesn't like it because it makes him looking older. With just his name, you will miss a part of the story.

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One option in that case would be Mr. ? or Mister. But yes, often in translations some nuance will be lost, but if you can get the core message across I don't think that's so much of a problem.

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Before I discovered K-dramas I was a foreign film buff. French, German, Japanese. And these of course included subtitles. The people I knew who feared subtitles seemed to actually fear that they weren't 'intellectual' enough to watch serious grown-up films. 'Subtitles' was just their excuse for avoiding them. These are the same people who refused to watch black and white movies, secretly afraid they'd find themselves watching an 'art house' film they'd be unable to keep up with.

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I've always stayed away from dubbed and subtitled movies and shows. I can follow American accents so never required subs for their shows and movies but even British or Australian or even Spanish shows I avoided because of the accents and also fast talking. I think they speak slower in Korean shows so I can keep up with the scene and subtitles but its not the same for other countries' shows. Even when a Kdrama has a fast pace or have people talking quickly like Chief of Staff recently I've have to back up and rewatch scenes to understand them. So I'm also really thankful to Dramabeans for recapping shows!
I always appreciated Kdramas because even as a foreign viewer I feel touched or laugh out loud at a scene even without understanding words and that's all because of the subtitles and more so overall the acting is so good. I always imagine that if I'm enjoying this so much by just reading subtitles then how enjoyable it must be for a native speaker. Reading subtitles also takes practice I guess but Kdramas convey emotions and comedy so well that you want to keep watching them, even without knowing the tongue, and they are worth the wait for subtitles.

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What has been ignored here is that for deaf or partly deaf people, subtitles are the only option for watching a movie.

As such, we the hearing impaired can appreciate any movie without a language issue as long as the translator and whoever types out the subtitles are both fluent and properly educated in both languages.

Korean movies are fairly good in this respect although some issues show clearly that English for instance is not the translators first language. The results are usually funny.

Humour carries through surprisingly well in subtitles despite the nuances of the paired languages. We all find the same things funny.

A benefit to subtitles - especially when viewed at home, is that the scene can be paused to capture the entire dialogue which is usually lost in a movie theatre.

Generally I watch the first time to get all of the dialogue and understand the story. The second time I focus on the visuals more since I know the story. I watch the best ones several times because there is generally so much detail and thought put into non-American movies that if you don't watch them multiple times, you cannot possibly absorb the subtleties of the movie. That is where the brilliance of the movie or series really separates foreign films from American films. American films generally have no depth.

Subtitles are a beautiful thing in another way: A foreign film where the dialogue is in spoken English always comes across as cheap and phony. A Roman Gladiator in the Coliseum in Rome speaking English does not capture the spirit of the moment or the times for me. It comes across as cartoonish.

Hearing the correct language as it was meant to be heard delivers the art form in its purest sense. The dialogue flows with the action. When dubbing is present, that makes complete babble of the spoken word for the hearing impaired who often expect to be able to read the lips. So making sure lip movements are in sync with the vocals is vital.

Finally, the flavour of the language is nice to hear. The subtitles are like a window into their world. You can't beat that for a beautiful movie watching experience.

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Parasite's dialog almost seemed tailored for the American market. There were no jokes, for example, about the inappropriate use of banmal, which would have only confused neophytes to Korean dramas. I recall in 'Hotel Del Luna' there was IU's snide appending of '-yo' to ends of sentences where she had obviously been speaking informally. Long time K-drama viewers would get the joke, people sitting down to their first Korean movie wouldn't.

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I am firmly in camp subtitle.

I have learned a lot of Korean idioms because of certain subbers that would either leave it as is/direct translate, then note what the meaning behind it is. Yes, sometimes that requires a lot of pausing to read it all, but totally worth it to me.

I've also really liked some historic subs where the subber goes out of their way to use different formality levels of language to match the classes represented in the shows. I know some find that over the top, but they feel more enriching to me than detrimental.

One thing I can't stand is when a sub is translated from another sub. Those are often the worst, and sometimes they even leave in their own languages' native words/idioms instead of using the original Korean which drives me crazy. A somewhat recent show had that, and the "nickname" for the female lead was some sort of "yam" which was obviously slang. But it took me over an hour to even figure out the word meant yam since I didn't speak the language that the untranslated word was. So I spent an hour just trying to do a search (and even took a stab at Google translate) to try to understand what that word was when I also have no idea how to spell it in a Romanized form. 😣

I am also laughing because just last night, I winged to a different interest group discussion about how watching a less popular Kdrama always means you have to wait longer for subs. There are a lot of folks that watch a wide variety of media in other languages in that group, and my comment ended up in a side discussion that lasted almost an hour where folks were talking about subs versus dubs, and also voice over actor related issues and preferences as well.

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This is a great article from the herald on the subject.
"Translation, wings that helped 'Parasite' soar free and high."

"While Bong’s biting advice awakened many to the reality of Hollywood still largely unreceptive to foreign language films, it also raised awareness about the importance of subtitles in effectively delivering a movie to people of different cultures and languages."

“The subtitlers don’t translate literally or simply deliver the words, but they identify the message the director intends and ‘design the language’ so that the foreign viewers can arrive at the core of the message,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “It’s a complicated job that requires both professional insight in film making and linguistic proficiency.”

That's one of the reason why Sharon Choi was an amazing interpreter. She is an aspiring film maker beside being proficient in both Korean and English.

“I often find myself toning down complex English phrases, idioms and slangs that all North American English speakers say on a daily basis because not all audience who will read my subtitles are from North America, and the phrases have to be simple and elegant to be retranslated to other languages,” said Jo in an email interview.

DF and Netflix comes to mind. They were/are gathering to a more global audience.

For K-dramas, commentaries like how WITH S2 did with their subs was very helpful when I first started watching K-dramas. They didn't tone down anything. They explained the idioms, slangs etc.

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200206000722&np=6&mp=1

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My problem with subtitles (especially on Netflix) is that when some grampa says, "Aigo." He is not saying, "@#!!*%&$." The subtitler(s) on Netflix really annoy me with their potty mouths (pens, keyboards?) Often I see a character sigh and the subtitler writes "#$*!" It was a SIGH, you nob! You didn't need to translate it into profanity or vulgarity. The person was breathing heavily! I can understand when it is an adult program. But I've been watching family fare (Korean TV comedies) and they've been ruined for me by stupid subtitlers who think everyone--even children swear like sailors.

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I was just talking to people about this because it's odd--certain dramas on Netflix have a plethora of F-bombs while in others they are largely absent. Many lines in Hyena are translated in a pretty vulgar way, while Itaewon Class is very light on the swears in comparison. Similarly, Vagabond had a ridiculous number of F-bombs while The Lies Within had few. And I didn't notice a single vulgar word when I rewatched Because This Life is Our First. I've even noticed it varies by episode--certain episodes of Vagabond were markedly worse than others in terms of subbed expletives. This makes me wonder, is it an individual subber thing? Or a genre thing? Or a mix of the two?

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My sister has made the same observation. It annoys her as well.

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Maybe they think that hard-edge will appeal to foreign audiences.

I don't know, but it is so annoying.

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Subtitles are HEAVEN!!!Grew up with them and absolutely hate dubbing as it destroys for me at least,the whole experience...Thanks to them i've learned many new words,expressions not only from english but many other languages...What i don't like on the other side about subtitles are the translations that are many times mistleading,that have nothing to do with the original meaning that i realize started more and more to be present unlike the past(if u understand is even more annoying),becoming over-Americanized(here i'm talking about korean product)...Many people take by default that subtites are 100% corect and don't doubt there can be faults into it and end up having problems understanding a plot or essence of a movie/drama someting is quite sad and for some can ruin the experience sadly...As i mostly understand by now korean per ex. i use the subtitles as more reference rather than being something of necessity and usually roll my eyes when what i hear and read are total opposite even by the so called same language oficial translators(Netflix it's u)...Gonna come out and say it also plainly,i hate the way they force the names(for korean in this case),just to fit their standard of comodity in place of leaving it as it's meant to be...Please leave Gu Dae Goo and not for me to read it as Dae Goo Gu(end of petty rant),koreans don't use it the same as americans...In the big picture to end it pretty,subtitles were always and will be a friend and it indeed helped a lot from when i was little till now!

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In my country there used to be subtitles for all the movies. It was difficult for parents with little children watching cartoons: "mom/dad, will you read for me, please?". Then kids would start school at 6-7 years old and by 8 years old they could read the subtitles by themselves.
This also helped them learn a foreign language - mainly English, but we also learned words and expressions in Japanese, from the anime series. Or my aunt and uncle, who were farmers and lived in the country, would learn Spanish and Portuguese from the soap operas. It was so fun to hear my aunt asking my uncle: "Un cafezinho, don Aurelio?" (his name was Aurelius). And he would answer: "Obrigado!" (We're really far away from Portugal or Brazil!)
My friends' kids would learn English from the subbed cartoons on Cartoon Network. Nowadays they dub the cartoons, and kids have to find other things to watch in order to learn English.
Also, I work as a movie translator. Some of the companies have very strict rules about what we can and cannot translate. For instance, for a certain company, we couldn't add explanations in brackets in order to explain a pun. So, in a movie, there was this girl named Finn and a guy made a joke about the fin of a fish and we just couldn't render his joke in any way (we - translator and proofer - tried, but it was not approved).
Of course it's difficult to render a whole culture when you have time and space constraints (if the actor says a lot of words in just one second, we have to shorten them to something that can be read in one second, i.e. a much lower amount of words. There is also a limit for the number of letters on a line, and sometimes just one extra letter that must be deleted forces us to rephrase the sentence and get something less fluent and clear.)
As regards Korean specific words, like unni, hyung, oppa, I think it would be better if they would be left like this in the translation, after all people either know what they are about, or they can learn something new about the Korean culture! But I can also understand that some companies might have certain requirements (i.e. translate everything, don't leave words in the source language) and this is how we hear "hyung!" and the subtitle says "Seo-joon!"
I admire a lot the translators who manage to translate one episode in less than one day, I can't even imagine how difficult it is (we have 2-5 days for that). And even if there are 2 or more persons working on it, they manage to make it uniform.
I remember watching Pride and Prejudice, where there was a character called White Bear, another one who was Panda Bear and another one who was just Bear. I really thought there were 3 separate characters, but in reality there was just one, whose name was translated differently in the different episodes. Fortunately, the quality has improved enormously lately. And this is why I'd like to thank all the people who provide us with great subtitles and help us enjoy our passion!

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What's a recent movie you enjoyed translating?

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I translated a Turkish series called Love 101 (the audio is in Turkish, it was translated into English and then I translated the English subtitles into my language). I found it quite refreshing and with quite a lot of food for thought (it is about kids in a high school, but not the usual stuff, at least not for me). In this specific case, the English subtitles were very good (I know a couple of words in Turkish, so I could "check", also I learned some things while translating, such as "good morning", "how are you", "thank you very much", because they were repeated many times).
I have also translated two Japanese series, but the English subtitles were not the best, and sometimes they made no sense at all. Also, when a character would say "oh, you!" or something innoncent in Japanese, the English subtitle said "Screw you" (excuse my French) - but they were kids in 7th grade, so it was totally inappropriate.

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I love Turkish historical shows. I have been following "Diriliş: Ertuğrul" for years. It's kind of like the "Jumong" of Korea. It goes far back in their history that it becomes a legend.

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My,we have the same experiences as mine when i was little...That's how i actually learned english while young,while watching Cartoon Network when small and it rocked having them on original and family learning myself inclusive spanish & portuquese from soap operas that were all the rave in my country(especially latino america ones)..I was in the process of learning germal the same way via tv watching Dragon Ball Z and other anime but they took out the RTL2 channel and forgot most of it jajja

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I came to America when I was three years old. Therefore, I grew up with watching subtitles. That was the only way me and my mom learn English before I go to school. However, it was daily Chinese and Korean dramas that we watched growing up. LOL My pet peeve is the incorrect English spelling words of the English subtitles. Smh.

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There is another dimension for subtitles. Hard of hearing people like me. I have gotten hooked on Korean dramas very soon after I have lost my hearing - they were interesting, acting was fantastic, and I could understand what was going on because they had subs. And I am beyond thankful for their existence, for in my depressed state after the hearing loss, they were my main source of entertainment. I am not a part of the group that lobbies for subtitles in the cinemas, but there is a lot of resistance to the idea. I still am not able to understand any of the blockbuster movies there. And time and again I return to Netflix and switch on a K-drama again.

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"One drawback is that when you’re listening to a language you don’t understand while reading a line-by-line translation, a few important things can be missed: inflection, intonation, and nuance." I honestly couldn't agree more. I enjoy watching movies/dramas that aren't in my native language, but I'm sure that there is a lot that I miss when relying on the translation.
I have a cousin that will only watch foreign films if they are dubbed in English. I have never been able to tolerate dubbed films. They just seem so off and unnatural.
I'm truly grateful that we have access to sites that subtitle these dramas that we all enjoy and love ♥

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I guess I've always had an interest in films and dramas from other countries, so much so that I feel I grew up reading subtitles. LOL. I even find myself leaving them on when watching English-language productions. They can be helpful when dialogue is drowned-out by ridiculously loud "background" scores.

Anyway, I love this topic. It's just so fascinating to me. I'll take subtitles over dubbed any day. I love hearing the actual language spoken; I have to hear the performer in his or her own voice.

When it comes to languages that I have some degree of familiarity with, I find myself able to read at a decent pace and observe the subtleties of performances at the same time. It can be harder with other languages, but I am up for the challenge.

I once suggested a foreign film to a patron who loves gory action flicks and she told me that she might as well read a book. She also multi-tasks while watching things, so subtitles were not for her.

I wouldn't want to limit myself. There is such a rich world out there. I might not actually travel, but I love experiencing different cultures through literature and dramas.

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"I wouldn't want to limit myself. There is such a rich world out there. I might not actually travel, but I love experiencing different cultures through literature and dramas."

Same here and I'm not just watching K-dramas and Chinese dramas. I watch a little bit from other countries too. Turkey, Israel, Spain, France etc.
Cannes festival has been helpful in discovering new films to watch every year from other countries. There are so much talents out there. It's a fascinating discovery and to learn more about the world through films and dramas.

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"I watch a little bit from other countries too."

Same here. :)

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My mom is sprung on the Turkish dramas. Especially the action dramas.

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I am Italian and in Italy dubbing is a form of art. I did not grew up with subtitles. I was lucky enough to be born in a border region where I grew up learning 2 languages so I had no issues watching any channel one tv (just normal channels, no satellite dishes involved or cable) from 4 different countries (the perks of living in a border region is having all the channels from the nearby countries). I experienced subtitles only when I started learning English and French and then when I dived into the dramaworld subs became a daily thing for me. During my uni years I was part of a subtitling community (for English tv show) so I experienced first hand how nuanced subtitles can be.

For me now watching something with subtitles is the norm. I always prefer watching a show or a film in original language than dubbed.

Reg Parasite and it subs: remember the scene when the son is struggling to connect to the wifi at home? The mother asks him to check whatsapp reg the pizza boxes job. I found it quite funny that the subbers used whatsapp since we all know that is probably not the messaging service mentioned but the translation needed to find something that western audiences would relate to and understand.

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Nice to see an Italian here.

Hello from an Italian-American! :)

Regarding dubs: my aunts praise their dubbed productions, but I'm a little more on the fence. I must say, however, that I loved the Italian version of Howl's Moving Castle. That's saying something, because I even get critical of animated dubs. LOL

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Hiiii!!!
I love the Italian dubbing. When I was growing up I could see the difference between the Italian dubbing and the German one. The Italian one was just way better and the voices were also great. Early on they always managed to keep the same voice for the same actor and most dubbers in Italy are actors themselves so they do a stellar job when voicing someone else.
I think the worst dubbing came from Russia when they were using one voice (usually male) for all characters in the film/tv show and you could still here the English in the background. LOL.
I have been living abroad for several now and when I go back to Italy I find it difficult to listen to dubbed versions of English (or German) films, mainly because it is languages that I speak and understand. Same for Japanese or Korean (anime of dramas) because I really like the original voices.

I recently watched Dark on Netflix: the dubbing in English is pretty bad. The dubbing is just off and not properly synched.
Another show that had an interesting take on dubbing on Netflix is How to sell drugs online (fast): the dubbing in English is done by Germans (possibly the original cast) and the heavy German accent when speaking English is so crazy to hear.

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