Lost in Translation: English language in K-drama

I’ve learned to brace myself whenever a non-Asian actor appears in a scene, even if they don’t have a speaking role. The actors cast to play Americans in K-dramas may be American in real life, but they’re rarely good actors. You’ll find examples in Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Mr Sunshine and Misaeng, with such a bad cameo in the first episode of Misaeng, I almost stopped watching. The US delegation at the beginning of Designated Survivor were hammy and implausible.

When so much production money is spent on these Korean series, and the quality of acting is so high, this persistent mis-casting of roles for English speakers, or lack of attention to the English-language lines in the script, is surprising and unfortunate. A US Army spokesman in Steel Rain is obviously a German actor, speaking English with a strong accent. (In the same movie, the US Secretary of State is played by veteran Scottish actor Ron Donachie, who can at least manage to pass as American, his non-American teeth notwithstanding.)

Criticism of English speakers in Squid Game led to this article in the Guardian, blaming the translated scripts and lack of direction. (Note that John D. Michaels, one of the derided English-speaking VIPs, has also appeared in Designated Survivor, Hot Stove League and Mr Sunshine.) Forbes magazine described the VIP characters as “deeply grating” and “painful in every way;” their dialogue as “awful.”

It’s plausible that the scripts are insufficiently idiomatic. Certainly, the English subtitles on TV series are often not idiomatic, and translations can be erratic. On some series there seems to be a different translator for every episode, and English doesn’t appear to be anyone’s first language. The rule of translation: you translate from a language in which you are fluent into, not from, your mother tongue. In some series I’ve watched, a translator has had a German name, quite possibly translating from one second language into another second language. Some viewers have criticised the English translation for Squid Game for its poor paraphrasing.

In other TV series or films, it’s not clear whether the script or the subtitles are poor. When a character in historical drama Empress Ki asks “Are you two dating?”, it’s a clunky anachronism, but perhaps this wasn’t in the original script.

Note that I never watch dubbed versions of non-English-language films or TV series, always subtitles. Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, a graduate of USC film school, has asked non-Korean viewers to opt for subtitles rather than dubbing.

Photo credit: Peter Hampshire