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Translation, wings that helped ‘Parasite’ soar free and high

Feb. 6, 2020 - 17:29 By Choi Ji-won
Director Bong Joon-ho (far left) and actors of “Parasite” pose at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2019. (Yonhap)

As director Bong Joon-ho captivated the audience abroad with his dark satire “Parasite,” back home the name Darcy Paquet made headlines in local media outlets.

Many Koreans were initially surprised that “Parasite” outperformed Bong’s previous films and those by other prominent auteurs, such as Lee Chang-dong and Park Chan-wook, winning the first Palm d’Or for a Korean film. That is, until they heard of “Ram-don,” “Oxford,” and many more eloquent English-language subtitles by Paquet. Bong credited such subtle and elegant translations with making the audience at Cannes laugh, sigh and cry at the right moments.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards. 

While Bong’s biting advice awakened many to the reality of Hollywood still largely unreceptive to foreign language films, it also raised awareness about the importance of subtitles in effectively delivering a movie to people of different cultures and languages.
Still from “Parasite” with English subtitles (CJ Entertainment)
Still from “Parasite” with English subtitles (CJ Entertainment)
Subtitles could be considered an artwork, according to culture critic Kim Heon-sik.

“The subtitlers don’t translate literally or simply deliver the words, but they identify the message the director intends and ‘design the language’ so that the foreign viewers can arrive at the core of the message,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “It’s a complicated job that requires both professional insight in filmmaking and linguistic proficiency.”

However, the general public seldom recognize the importance of subtitles and the expertise involved. Except for a few rare cases, the names of the subtitlers are not included in the ending credit.

According to Kim, most filmmakers do not have a set standard for translations and thus foreign-language subtitles suffer from the lack of professional expertise.

“The creation of subtitles is the start and essence of making Korean films known in other countries. But, right now, most filmmakers don’t share a general standard in employing translators,” Kim said.

Currently, there are no government-related organizations offering formal education or training related to film translation.

Some companies, including major film producers and distributors such as CJ Entertainment and Showbox, are leading the change by forming a separate team that focuses on overseas sales. While most small or midsized filmmakers outsource the work to agencies, these in-company teams can be more thorough in repackaging a film, including subtitles.

At M-Line, a film agency which specializes in international sales of Korean films -- indie films in particular -- a transparent process is in place to ensure appropriate subtitles. The firm has a pool of verified freelance translators and supervisors affiliated with the company.

“Although we have a stable system, the fundamental problem is that there are very few people who can translate films with expertise,” said Rachel Joo, a manager at M-Line. “We usually find natives or Korean Americans who have majored in film and can speak both languages. While this pie itself is too small, it would be great if people of various backgrounds join the pool in the future.”

Tae Jo, a Korean Canadian who has produced subtitles for more than 200 Korean films over the past 12 years, stressed that English subtitles are important in another sense because they work as an “intermediate interface” not only for the English-speaking audiences but for overseas distributors, which use the English subtitles to translate the film into their native language.

A scene from “Beasts Clawing at Straws” which features subtitles by Tae Jo. (Megabox Joongang Plus M)

“I often find myself toning down complex English phrases, idioms and slangs that all North American English speakers say on a daily basis because not all audience who will read my subtitles are from North America, and the phrases have to be simple and elegant to be retranslated to other languages,” said Jo in an email interview.

Jo has translated “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” which recently won at the Tiger Competition of Rotterdam Film Festival, and the current box office hit “The Man Standing Next.” He works with several distributors, including Showbox and M-Line.

Regarding Bong’s speech at the Golden Globe, Jo said, “I absolutely commend director Bong’s comment. Subtitles are also a creative individual’s insight into another culture. A guide to another world.”

“Our (translators’) job is to ease the audience into cultures that are foreign to them and provide invaluable context to the story that is about to unfold. For this reason, I take pride in my work and its ability to introduce every facet of Korean culture to the rest of the world,” Jo said.

By Choi Ji-won (