The Nuances and Errors of Netflix Translations

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Director Bong Joon-ho, as he accepted his best picture Oscar for Parasite in 2020, in a not-so-subtle dig at the dominance of English language content.

One of the biggest streaming services in the world, Netflix, has been attempting to expand its content catalogues to include more non-English content for its users to watch and enjoy. Some of the popular content that Netflix has been attempting to expand into are Animes, K-Dramas, C-Dramas, Indian shows, and many others. These shows, when brought over to the Netflix library, are usually translated into multiple languages, English at the very least, via either subtitles and/or revoicing audio into other languages. Over the years, the scale at which Netflix has been translating series have increased, however, the qualities of these translations have always been mixed. As of August 2020, in the United States, Netflix’s catalogue has 3186 titles in English, 552 titles in Hindi, 364 in Spanish, 214 in Japanese, 203 in Mandarin, 147 in Korean, and 1151 shows in other languages. Keep in mind that these numbers would have significantly increased by now, especially as Netflix’s focus on non-English content increased in 2021, especially after Squid Game’s success. 

Netflix has many teams working on translating and localizing these shows to be accessible to a worldwide audience, which they’ve established over the years, including Netflix India, Netflix Anime, Netflix Korea, and many others. Despite the commercial successes of these teams, their critical and audience success has been not as good as one would expect. Mistranslations, stiff voicework for dubs, incomplete translations, and many other issues have plagued Netflix’s international shows, which have caused shows to be steeped in controversy, especially by people who understand the languages of the shows and can directly compare the series’ translations with their original languages.

Let us begin with the biggest translation controversy Netflix had in 2021, Squid Game. Many Koreans and foreigners who know the Korean language claim that viewers basically watched a different show if they watched it subbed or dubbed. The character of Ali refers to Sang-woo, another main character, as 사장님 (sajangnim), which translates to “Mr.” or “Boss”, but Netflix translated it as “Sir” instead, which changed the dynamics between Ali and Sang-woo, especially considering Ali’s background as a migrant worker with an abusive boss. 

Netflix’s Closed Captioning was criticized for being different from their regular subtitles.

Other K-Dramas have their full titles be translated poorly, with the show 왕관을 쓰려는 자, 그 무게를 견뎌라 – 상속자들 (“He Who Wishes To Wear the Crown, Endures Its Weight – The Heirs”) being simply translated as “The Heirs”, which completely took away the deep meaning that was established behind the title of the drama. A different streaming service that has better-received translations is “Viki”, whose translations are done by volunteers, causing them to be released slower than Netflix translations but be much higher in quality and more accurate. Another issue with the translation of titles includes show titles being translated differently on Netflix compared to their titles on Viki and other streaming services, and on home releases.

A K-Drama fan’s opinions about Netflix translations on Tumblr.

Other types of shows have similar or even bigger issues than what K-Dramas have. C-Dramas have been shown to have poorly edited subtitles as well, and it is an even bigger issue than K-Dramas due to C-Dramas being much more niche than K-Dramas and thus not having as many alternate legal streaming options other than Netflix. But they do have a dedicated community of fan translators who often make alternate translations for hosting on websites like KissAsian and others. Netflix also translates show titles for C-Dramas weirdly and makes translation choices that are not liked by many viewers.

One of the most popular C-Dramas subject to poor Netflix translations is 微微一笑很倾城 (A Smile is Beautiful), which has been translated by Netflix as Love O2O, again a weird choice considering the Chinese title is completely different from what Netflix chose to translate it as.

The KissAsian stream is supposedly translated much more accurately, as compared to Netflix’s translation.

Many fans have actively shown preferences for subtitles with translator’s notes that explain the series more over the more streamlined subtitles that Netflix does that often doesn’t convey the language/cultural context of the dialogue. Also, the character Hao Mei, who goes by the online username “Mo Zha Ta” which means “Don’t Hit Him” is instead translated as “Mozart” only because it sounds similar to the Chinese pronunciation.

The biggest source of constant controversial translation errors though is their translations of their anime shows, which have been heavily criticized and scrutinized due to their pathetic quality that completely change certain dialogues, remove plot points completely, censor content and omit translations of on-screen texts.

After Netflix started getting into licensing and broadcasting anime content, people noted the low quality their anime subtitles were, with shows like Shirobako, which used on-screen text to introduce characters just not being translated (literally removing character names from the show). Neon Genesis Evangelion was redubbed using different voice actors for Netflix, creating audio inconsistencies with the rest of the franchise that was licensed by Funimation and Amazon Prime, it was a dub that removed all cursing from the show, had grammar errors and terminology that didn’t make sense in English and censored a gay romantic subplot from the series. A lot of the localization controversies surrounding Evangelion have already been talked about, so here are some pictures to quickly recap the situation.

Netflix subtitles compared to ADV Films (Evangelion’s previous license holder) subtitles and Central Anime (a fan translation) subtitles
Netflix’s translation removed all cursing from the show, reducing the emotional impact of some scenes and dialogues
Netflix’s subtitles translated terminology and dialogue literally, causing grammar errors like “Third Children” which sounds unnatural in both the dub and the sub.
Evangelion subtitles as translated by 4 different license holders. The bottom two are from the reboot of the original series (on top) that share similar scenes during parts of their plots. The Amazon and Netflix subtitles were made by the same translator from the original production studio of the series.

Another anime that recently started airing on Netflix is the highly anticipated anime Komi Can’t Communicate, which is a romantic comedy show about a girl who has severe social anxiety and can’t talk to others without her face freezing up, so she communicates via writing, either on a notebook or the class blackboard. Netflix by itself just decided to not translate half the text in the show, basically leaving conversations only half translated. As a result, one of the most romantic scenes in modern anime was left untranslated, at least officially.

Netflix opted not to translate quite a few pieces of texts on-screen, both gag texts and written dialogue, for reasons unknown

In an interview on The Guardian, Youmee Lee, a deaf Korean-American, stated that she wishes that Netflix (and many other streaming services) put effort in their translation and localization processes, calling closed captions just as important as regular subtitles, and calling out Netflix for not being as accessible for deaf viewers, especially with their inconsistencies in qualities and omitting captioning of certain sounds or dialogues in foreign shows.

With K-Dramas like Squid Game, animes like Evangelion and C-Dramas becoming more and more popular around the world, some people wonder why people care so much about accurate translations. Some may wonder if completely accurate subtitles even matter as long as the summary of the show is gotten across to the viewers. To them, I would say – Do some people care about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? How would they feel if the dialogue “Dormammu, I’ve Come to Bargain.” Is mistranslated to mean “Dormammu, let’s come to an agreement”? It technically gets the summary of the scene across. But if one word was mistranslated for a big audience, Marvel fans would be incredibly angry. It’s the same for fans of anime, K-Dramas, and C-Dramas.

One thought on “The Nuances and Errors of Netflix Translations

  1. Wow, I’ve never seen such a concise write-up on the issues of bigger corporations translating foreign language material to subs, vs the fan sub groups who allow viewers to learn more about context via translator notes.

    To add to what you said about Funimation, they have also been completely changing the context of anime scenes by inserting ‘social justice’ sentiment where there was none in the original Japanese script.

    It’s pretty concerning that even now, we can’t fully rely on the subtitles from places like Netflix or Funimation half of the time.

    Like

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