With Avengers: Infinity War in the theaters, subtitle translations are once again a hot issue, as you might know this time, even if you have not watched the movie. The person who is known to have produced the Korean subtitles for the movie has since been publicly shamed, with meme-ified mistakes dug up from older movies’ Korean subtitles, even some that are not of his own doing. Looking up “subtitle mistakes” on a Korean portal does deliver to you some of the most hilarious translations out there, many of them by freelance translators making subtitles as a personal hobby or an English exercise. It makes one wonder: when amateur subtitle producers could ruin your home cinema experience and professional ones could just as well mislead the audience with plot-altering lapses in judgment, is all hope lost for moviegoers and Netflixers alike? How can one do better than to haphazardly throw personal insults at the subtitle producer or disgruntledly blame the movie industry altogether for continuing to hire an apparently incompetent translator?
Before addressing those questions directly, I would first like to emphasize that making everyone proficient in English is not the solution, neither immediate nor long-term. Yes, it is simplistic and naïve, but never mind that: it’s wrong! I believe that there is great value to be found in appreciating movies in one’s mother tongue. Here is an anecdotal example. In one scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and Sam talk about their meals on their way to Mordor. At one point, appearing discontent with the scarcity of food and the brisk pace of the journey Frodo is leading, Sam asks, “What about second breakfast?” Even though I was a small boy when I first watched the movie in 2002, I still recall how this rather bland question was brilliantly translated with “second breakfast” as ajeom. If this translation was not the first to coin the Korean equivalent of “brunch”, then it at least popularized ajeom to a great extent.
Ironically enough, I, as a contributor to an English newspaper, still seek to spot these little pleasantries that are easy to overlook. The key takeaway from this example is, no matter how many people become fluent in English, there exist countless opportunities for the Korean audience to appreciate movies in the Korean language still. Translation done wrong can be a channel for frustration, but done right, it can also be a channel for humor and appreciation.
Having said that, subtitles in the cinemas in the recent years, together with the heightened English proficiency of the moviegoers, may have lowered people’s reliance on and expectations towards subtitles. While I don’t want to insinuate such a lowered reliance with the apparently ill-received quality of the subtitles, I do believe that some subtitle producers owe the audience: if they do not have the ability or the willingness to pleasantly surprise the audience with ajeom-like wit (as in Deadpool, maybe?), then the least they should have done is to opt for factually consistent translation of the original material. The dreaded mistranslation of Dr. Strange’s pivotal line in Avengers: Infinity War was the one point in the movie where the translators must have prioritized factual accuracy over cross-cultural humor. Instead, the translated line seems to have missed both of those marks, thereby bringing about a wave of blog posts, YouTube videos, news articles, and a whole lot of other media attention just on that instance of mistranslation.
While the collective effort to correct misleading information in subtitles and to share a factually accurate understanding of the movie with the rest of the audience may be a commendable doing, I view this rather good-willed endeavor as a compromise. It feels as if, given the sparsity of appreciable pleasantries in Korean subtitles, more and more people are choosing to recede to a lower standard of “At least get the facts right.” What I worry about is that this attitude can wither the subtitle production scene and deprive it of its last drop of wit altogether. In fact, it is by adhering to the strictest standards that I believe more subtitle producers will try better.
Going back to the first thoughts, what can we do about the falling standards of some Korean subtitles? We could fall back and focus on the factual inaccuracies and maybe end up with stale Google-Translate-like translations that are factually accurate down to the letter. Or, we could stand by the highest standards and cherish the serendipitous findings of well-translated lines that are growing sparser with every new opening movie. This way, at least we keep believing in those subtitle producers and in their unexercised wit.