Subtitles crucial to South Korean movie Parasite's Oscar success

A still from Parasite (2019) with English subtitles. Director Bong Joon-ho credited the subtle and elegant translations with making the audience laugh, sigh and cry at the right moments.
A still from Parasite (2019) with English subtitles. Director Bong Joon-ho credited the subtle and elegant translations with making the audience laugh, sigh and cry at the right moments.PHOTO: CJ ENTERTAINMENT VIA KOREA HERALD

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As director Bong Joon-ho captivated audiences abroad with his dark satire Parasite and won four Oscars for the movie, the name Darcy Paquet made headlines in South Korean media outlets.

Many South Koreans were initially surprised that Parasite had outperformed Bong's previous films and those by other prominent auteurs, such as Lee Chang-dong and Park Chan-wook, by winning the first Palme d'Or for a Korean film at last year's Cannes Film Festival in France.

That is, until they heard of "ram-don", "Oxford" and many more eloquent English-language subtitles by Paquet, a Seoul-based American film scholar who translated the subtitles for Parasite.

Bong credited the subtle and elegant translations with making the audience laugh, sigh and cry at the right moments.

"Once you overcome the one-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 last month.

While Bong's biting advice pointed to the reality that Hollywood remains largely unreceptive to foreign-language films, it also raised awareness about the importance of subtitles in delivering a movie to people of different cultures and languages.

Subtitles could be considered an art, 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 the foreign viewers can arrive at the core of the message," he said. "It's a complicated job that requires both professional insight in film-making and linguistic proficiency."

However, the public seldom recognise the importance of subtitles and the expertise involved. Except in rare cases, the names of the translators are not included in the closing credits.

According to Mr Kim, most filmmakers do not have a standard for translations, causing foreign-language subtitles to suffer from a 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," he said.


There are currently no government-related organisations in South Korea 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 charge by forming a separate team that focuses on overseas sales.

While most small or mid-sized film-makers 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 specialises in international sales of Korean films - indie films in particular - a transparent process is in place to ensure appropriate subtitles.

The agency has a pool of certified 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 Ms 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."

Mr 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.

"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 re-translated to other languages," said Mr Jo in an email interview.

He 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, Mr 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," he said.