Subtitling is an essential art form. So why, as the streaming giant scores more global hits with shows like Squid Game and Call My Agent, isn’t it trying harder to find the right words?
“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” So said the 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. The success of Netflix’s Korean series Squid Game, where contestants compete in deadly playground games to win a cash prize, has proved him more than right. It has become Netflix’s biggest hit yet, earning the title of its No 1 show in 90 countries, mostly within days of release and eclipsing even the mighty Bridgerton. But it has also sparked an intense debate about what gets lost in that one-inch block of text – and raised questions over whether Netflix is investing enough in creating accurate versions of foreign-language scripts.
Even before Squid Game, some of Netflix’s biggest hits were “foreign language” series, among them Lupin (France), Elite (Spain), Dark (Germany) and Money Heist (Spain). This is partly about global viewers being increasingly open to seeking out the best entertainment experiences. But it also speaks, perhaps, to a sort of secret fantasy that we might understand more in another language than we think. In the same way that everyone who lapped up the Danish series Borgen convinced themselves they could speak Danish just because they could say “Tak, tak, Staatsminister” (“Yes, yes, Prime Minister”) in a dodgy Scandinavian accent, so viewers turned to French slang YouTube videos to try to decode their best bits from Call My Agent. The optimistic inquiry “Can I speak a language fluently just by watching TV?” yields 10.4 million Google results.