Subtitling Korean Dramas

I wrote before about my work as a French subtitles proofreader on Korean Dramas recently. While the project was very interesting, it had some quirks that made it a lot more strenuous that it could’ve been. There are reasons for those quirks and I would like to talk about those here.

Working with subtitles is a tricky endeavor because there are many aspects to consider while only working with leftover budget. Most companies, not all but most, put all of their budget in getting the content produced in the best way possible in their target language. This means that any subtitling effort comes as an after thought. The globalisation of content is still reasonably new and is mainly attached to streaming platforms. This, of course, does not cover major feature films that care about translation, especially when it comes to awards targeted films. A great recent exemple is the film Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho whose translator Darcy Paquet is credited for his work as being the reason why the film has garnered so much interest internationally. I am only speaking in this article about what I know, that is Korean Dramas that were initially aimed at a Korean audience and that are now finding great interest in international markets.

Negative Effects of Mass Translation

Mass translation doesn’t take into account all of the key components of working with story driven content.

With a lack of budget, it is easy to turn to companies who now offer translations and subtitling services for cheap. Once such service is and their pricing structure is almost unbeatable. They have, however, an inner structure that will offer levels of quality based on the use of machine translation or actual translators. This means that for machine translation, the content will be taken care of by an AI and then reviewed by a staff member to make sure that everything makes sense. For higher levels of translation staff members will translate the script and then replace the time-coded original language with the one requested by the client. Those are two methods that completely ignore the essence of subtitles: they are a support system for what is on screen, not a standalone piece of content. This is not an article that disparages the site itself. I have used it myself for youtube content and was reasonably happy with it. I am just looking at the principles of mass translation.

Mass translation companies use many different translators to speed up the process which opens the doors to massive inconsistances.

Another side effect of mass translation is that everything is subject to individual interpretation. In some parts, if the dialogue doesn’t have any equivalent, then the translator must find a creative way to interpret the content. This creative interpretation must be carried through to the end of the content. For a drama with 20 episodes for instance, a funny nickname given to a character in episode 1 must be carried consistently throughout the entire show. When you have 5 translators who don’t communicate while working simultaneously, said nickname is bound to be different from episode to episode, which can be very annoying for audiences and show a lack of professionalism.

When translating dialogue, the following points are key to keep the audience engaged and make the content shine:

  • Context,

  • Past Events,

  • Relationship between character (past and present),

  • General subtext.

Without this understanding, many parts of the translation can fail to support the content properly. It can create confusion for the audience and therefore lose viewership. This is why working with mass translation, and therefore multiple underpaid translators on the same show, will not provide the type of quality that any piece of content created for broadcasting really deserves.

Methods of Translation and Adaptation

I have seen two methods for translation when it comes to the French language on the shows I proofread.

  1. Translate from Korean to English and then use the English script as a base for other languages,

  2. Translate from Korean to each target language.

In the first case, the hard work is done by the first translator. Since the Korean language is structured drastically differently than anglo-saxon and latin based languages, there is a lot that goes into that initial translation. I like to look at the Korean language as a puzzle that can pack a lot of meaning in a single sentence when putting the right pieces together. The English language is a lot more efficient and to the point. This means that once the Korean script is translated into English, it is a lot easier to move to other, more closely structured languages. This comes with a major issue. Korean and French have levels of politeness that English doesn’t have with the use of the pronoun ‘you.’ Once those levels are removed, they are not added again in the subsequent languages unless the translator works while watching the show.

As you probably know by now, this doesn’t happen when working with mass translation. Levels of politeness are lost, making everyone sound like they are friends when it is important for comprehension that they aren’t.

In the second case, all the work of adapting the Korean language to a latin based language, French in my case, has to be done again. This means having to choose what to insert in the translation. This becomes a problem when dealing with French, which I believe to a very cumbersome language. A single sentence in a medical Korean drama can contain a lot of information and trying to convey all this information in French would mean breaking subtitling reading standards at every line. Also, this ability to pack a lot of information in a sentence means that Korean speakers tend to repeat that information ad nauseum, making it almost impossible to work with when translated in French.

If the translator doesn’t spend the time required to adapt the text by understanding which initial pieces of information in the dialogue become implied in the subsequent lines, then the subtitles become impossible to read and therefore risk for the shows to lose viewership.

Here is an exemple of a sentence that creates tremendous issues if translated as is:

* A group of young bullies with no remorse beat your young innocent son until he collapsed. We tried to investigate this group of young bullies with no remorse but as long as your young innocent son is in a coma, there is nothing we can do. We will make sure that we find the group of young bullies with no remorse as soon as your young innocent son wakes up.

All of this can be said efficiently in Korean but become a nightmare in French. Yet, I have seen many instances where the need for interpretation was ignored by the translators who didn’t know how to work with ‘implied information’ and the subtitles were impossible to read.

Meaning and Efficiency

This means that in order to translate the content properly, it has to be carefully adapted to match two key factors:

  • Meaning (explicit and implicit),

  • Reading time.

Subtitles have a minimum and maximum amount of time dedicated to them in order to match what is on the screen but also allow the readers to go through them and catch the meaning of the lines being said. When writing long sentences, the audience may not have time to read them all before the next line of dialogue appears. When cutting out too much, the meaning may be lost. It becomes a juggling effort to estimate the proper ratio between the amount of information and the reading time. This can only be achieved by watching the show while working on the subtitles, and then giving another pass on the script to make the content more efficient in a way that can’t be done in the first pass.

Balancing Payment and Final Result

But here is the kicker: most companies exporting their content, and that includes massive streaming platforms, don’t want to pay for that job. It has to be done fast and cheap. This tends to give cheap unprofessional results. So for freelancers like me working on project like those, how do you balance the time spent vs the amount of money paid to you in the end?

It is a very difficult question to answer. As a proofreader who cares about content and storytelling, I only want the best for the show. This means spending more time making sure that everything is as good as can be. The problem here is that I can end up being very underpaid when most companies will happily release low quality subtitles in order to cut the costs. For some of those subtitles, I had to spend 5 hours fixing all the problems instead of what should’ve been less than 2 hours. Payment being per episode and not per hour, that quickly becomes an issue.

So it is true that working with mass translation and proofreading companies will cut the costs, it will also create issues that the content creators may or may not care about, but those issues will cost them viewership. Here is what I have come accross:

  • Levels of politeness were completely ignored,

  • Words were badly translated and didn’t match anything that was happening in the scene,

  • Subtitles were cumbersome to read,

  • Some of those sentences didn’t make sense at all,

  • The subtitles didn’t match the actual dialogue.

Companies who care about their content and their audience must think about the the use of competent staff. Using mass translation just doesn’t get the job done.

The Importance of Briefs

Rush jobs don’t get the benefit of working with a brief and yet, having one would speed up the process and insure consistency. Briefs should have standards expected by the contracting company as well as general information. For instance, Korean names are always written differently depending on the translator. Bong Joon-Ho can become Bong Joon-ho, Bong Joon Ho or, as I like to lay them out in French Joon Ho Bong.

The thinking process behind my own translation is that names in French are given as First Name/Last Name, while they are Last Name/First Name in Korean. I don’t want audience members to refer to the characters Bong Joon, thinking that it’s his first name, when it should actually be Joon Ho. Being able to understand and share that between fans of a show is important. However, when names are written differently in each episode, it gets messy and confusing for the audience.

To conclude, translating and adapting subtitles is not an easy task and yet it is given the short end of the stick simply because people in the industry don’t see them as being that important. They are and they require time and expertise. Don’t let your fans down around the world just to save money as I have no doubt that it will pay dividends down the line.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *