The Difference Between Captions and Subtitles (and Why It Matters for Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’)

The Difference Between Captions and Subtitles (and Why It Matters for Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’)
Screenshot: Netflix / YouTube

Everyone may be watching Squid Game — but are they really getting it? Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the South Korean dystopian drama has hit Netflix’s top spot in 90 countries, been subtitled in 31 languages, and dubbed into 13 — a real global sensation. It’s part of a larger trend in which English-speaking audiences in particular are getting into translated content. According to Netflix’s own numbers (which they’re famously less than open about), views of non-English language titles were up over 50 per cent in 2020, and the French-language Lupin is one of its most-watched series ever.

However, translation is an art, and online, many bilingual and multilingual Korean speakers have pointed out some ways Netflix’s closed captions for Squid Game have “botched” the show. Comic and co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast Youngi Mayer sparked debate in a viral Twitter thread (and a follow-up on TikTok) about whether those who aren’t fluent in Korean “really watched the same show.” Mayer has since spoken to a number of news outlets about the importance of translating meaning and metaphor over literal words.

But it turns out there’s a way to more accurately experience Squid Game — and many other non-English language shows and films — and it lies in selecting the right subtitle track. Turns out the difference between the kinds of text that can appear at the bottom of your screen can play a major role in your viewing experience.

Subtitles versus closed captions

Both subtitles and closed captions are visual aids — as opposed to dubbing, which involves translating speech into another language and lip-syncing new dialogue over the original audio. Dubbing is always going to involves changes to the dialogue — not because the translators are lazy, exactly, but because they can’t translate everything literally. The new script also has to be engineered so the dialogue roughly matches the actors’ original mouth movements.

Subtitles are a text alternative meant to directly match the dialogue being spoken, but they usually don’t include background noises or other elements of the audio. Subtitles typically assume the audience can hear the audio but need text to supplement the spoken word (such as in a direct translation of an entire film, or when multiple languages are used within the same film).

Closed captions [or CCs], on the other hand, do not assume the audience can hear what’s happening on screen. According to the National Association of the Deaf, CCs “not only display words as the textual equivalent of spoken dialogue or narration, but also include speaker identification, sound effects, and music description.” Closed captions are often automatically generated, which means when it comes to dubbed films, you’re going to be reading text based on the new dialogue.

So as a general rule: Subtitles are usually created for people who can hear but not understand dialogue, while close captions are designed for those who cannot hear any of the audio. And in the case of Squid Game, many Korean speakers claim the subtitles (translated from the original script) are more accurate than the closed captions, based on the dub audio.

What can get lost in translation

One example Mayer brings up in their TikTok (which has over 10 million views) explicates the potentially significant differences between captions and subtitles. She uses the example of a caption reading “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out,” versus what Mayer says is closer to the actual Korean dialogue: “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.” Mayer calls this translation a “sterilization” and dismissal of a “huge trope in Korean media,” in which poor characters are clever, but held back because they’re not wealthy enough to afford an education.

Again, translation is not a perfect science, but rather an (often undervalued) art form. (Case in point: the comments under that viral video are filled with people calling Mayer’s own translations inaccurate for one reason or another). While the debate around translations is an important one, it doesn’t mean non-Korean-speakers should be deterred from watching Squid Game altogether — just make sure you watch it with the subtitles on, instead of the captions.

How to change your subtitle settings on Netflix

The switch to subtitles from closed captions is simple. When you pull up Squid Game on Netflix, the caption options are located in the bottom right hand corner of your screen. Under the “Subtitles” header, select “English” — and not “English [CC].”

This is a good best practice to keep in mind when watching any film or TV show in translation. Unfortunately, not every translated film on every streaming service (or DVD) will offer both subtitles and captions, but if you have a choice, you definitely want to go with the former, which is far more likely to give you the best translation.

(And after you’re done watching, read up on how to beat every game in the show — though you will still struggle to win at the greatest game of all: capitalism.)