Lost in Translation: 'Squid Game's' Botched Subtitling Underscores Bigger Problem with Entertainment Metadata Content

Netflix original limited series 'Squid Game'
(Image credit: Netflix)

Today's content producers face a confounding problem. When a film or TV show is created, the creator (or their team) is the one who builds the metadata around the asset to reflect the feeling, description and overview of what it is and how it should be marketed. In short, nuance is everything. 

Once that piece of content is licensed to distributors, the creator loses that control. The original metadata surrounding the title can be changed at will by distributors to match application preferences, or even pulled in by third parties who claim editorial control over the content descriptions.

This poses a problem for creators who, for example, may have one descriptive synopsis for a theatrical release, then wish to change it for SVOD / AVOD releases, but are found they are locked out of performing any of those updates in the future.

The problem is further compounded by the distributors’ control over translations of the content, which do not have to be approved by the creators. Add to the mix that increasing trend of TV programs and movies garnering audiences international in scope, with multiple languages and cultural preferences to deal with, and what we have is a hot mess. 

Think about it: Say you’re the writer-director of an arch new rom-com film that gets picked up for international distribution. You’re in Paris for the film’s French debut when you happen to catch a subtitled version of your film on a French streaming network. With the way it’s been translated, you can’t help but notice that the humor is about as flat as a crepe. Your recourse? Le zéro!

Indeed, this phenomenon of botched subtitling might have gone unchecked for years if it had not been for Squid Game. It was just last month that Netflix dropped the dramatic Dystopian series from South Korea. Barely four weeks later, it has become one of the most popular Netflix series.

However, with success comes scrutiny, and suddenly what’s been described as Netflix’s laissez-faire attitude toward foreign-language subtitles has become a full-blown controversy. Now at first glance, Squid Game might seem to be an unlikely candidate for the one that throws a spotlight on the problem of subtitling. After all, it’s an action thriller – how important could dialogue possibly be?

The devil is always in the details. Yes, Squid Game explicitly is a genre series, using a tried-and-true plot device of innocents who unwittingly become players in a deadly game, controlled by an unknown force. However, the series intentionally has a subtle subtext about class, greed and capitalism, which is another way of saying it’s all about income disparity – a defining issue at the moment in American and, as it turns out, international politics. It’s this underlying theme that elevates the program beyond its genre and makes it a global hit.

Keep in mind that Squid Game isn’t the only non-English-language hit series from Netflix. The French-language Lupin and Spanish-language series Money Heist have also done well on the streaming service. And, needless to say, Netflix isn’t the only streamer in town. It might have been the first to have been fingered for playing loose with subtitles, but undoubtedly the other streamers have their own controversies brewing. 

Writing in Slate, Sharon Kwon, a bilingual Korean American psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, said, “There is a growing interest in stories by and about Black, Indigenous, or people of color characters. But if proper attention and care isn’t going into the preservation and expression of the nuances of language and meaning, then whose story are we watching?”

In other words, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon and probably will only get worse. What’s the fix? Well, first let’s go back to the origin of the problem – the creator of content losing control as it goes down the supply chain. Why is that the case?

The distributors who license film and TV content will tell you it’s a matter of streamlining a very complicated process. Can you imagine the logistics it would take to have the creator involved in every step of the licensing – from translation to creative services? Well, the answer is, yes, I can imagine it.

The technology for managing media and entertainment catalogues – including store identification, editorial, technical, rights, discovery, AI-generated content and translation – exists right now. Large content distributors (Iike you know who) just need to adopt the technology.

It’s a rare occurrence when the artist’s voice and technology so closely align. Let’s not squander this teachable moment by doing nothing.

Rob Delf is the CEO of Meta Data Software, headquartered in Los Angeles.

Rob Delf

Guest blog author Rob Delf is the CEO of Meta Data Software, which manages AI-generated content metadata for media and entertainment catalogues.